Welcome back to The Deep Post, a weekly column that hits on the rumblings of the week past and ahead. This week’s offering includes a look at the semifinals and how football cultures have shifted in the area.
But first, was this a great weekend of high school football or what?
The high school football quarterfinal and NFL Divisional weekends are two of my favorite of any given year. Most of the teams still playing belong which gives us some of the best games of the year including a few upsets.
This weekend was no different.
Class A No. 4 Greenbrier West survived No. 5 Wahama 22-20, Princeton came back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 41-37, Independence pulled off its second upset with a 13-0 win on the road, Class AAA No. 8 Bridgeport blasted No. 1 Cabell Midland and Class AA No. 5 Weir scored with 33 seconds left to beat No. 4 Scott. That’s a fun weekend of football for the neutral observer.
The 2017-18 school year was my first as a sports writer out of college.
Bluefield, Midland Trail, Summers County, Fayetteville, Richwood, James Monroe and Nicholas County all qualified for the postseason that year with Bluefield winning the Class AA state title and Summers advancing all the way to the semis.
After the season ended I was told by two of my colleagues, Gary Fauber and the late Dan Stillwell, that I shouldn’t get used to that because it wasn’t the norm. Football season was mostly a warmup for basketball season.
At the time they were right. Before that stretch the last area team to play for a title was Greenbrier West in 2013. Westside made a run to the semis in 2014 but aside from that football success was rare.
Since 2017 there’s been at least one local team playing for a state championship. Bluefield played for one every year from 2017-20, Independence has played for the last two Class AA crowns and James Monroe made it to Wheeling last year as well. We’ve also had three Kennedy Award winners during that span as well.
This year, four of the remaining 12 playoff teams hail from the area, continuing to signal the shift. Princeton, Independence, Greenbrier West and James Monroe have earned the right to practice on Thanksgiving.
We’re guaranteed one representative in Wheeling with James Monroe and Greenbrier West facing off for one of the Class A spots. It’s good to be covering playoff football deep into November.
Defense wins the day
The quarterfinal wins were largely secured by valiant defensive efforts. For Princeton, James Monroe and Independence the importance of defense can’t be overstated.
Since the postseason started the Princeton defensive line has been on a tear. It sacked Oak Hill QB Malachi Lewis over five times in the opening round and Kalum Kiser came up with the game-winning plays, including a strip sack from the right end position, in a 41-37 win over Parkersburg.
Sure, it doesn’t sound like much defense was played in a game where there were 874 yards of total offense with Parkersburg accounting for 400 of them but the Tiger defense came alive late. Here’s how Parkersburg’s final three drives ended – punt (three plays, minus-2 yards), turnover on downs (four plays, two yards) and a fumble (two plays, seven yards).
That’s an incredible turnaround for a unit that yielded three consecutive scoring drives of over 67 yards.
For Independence the top dog holds that title for another week.
Take a moment and listen to this postgame speech head coach John H. Lilly delivered.
Belief is dangerous thing and it’s a weapon Lilly has utilized well. His team of puppies have gone on the road twice now and punched a higher seed in the mouth, leaving them speechless. First the Patriots forced five turnovers on Roane County’s turf. Then they went to Winfield, recovered three fumbles and intercepted a pass, making sure the Generals ended the season the same way they started it – scoreless.
I thought it would be difficult to top what they did last week and I thought Winfield was a better team than Roane County was. Yet somehow the Patriots reached a new level in their title defense. They bent repeatedly but never broke. Now they advance to the semis where they’ll face Fairmont Senior in a full-circle moment for this senior class.
Independence’s climb to relevance began in 2020 when it lost at Fairmont Senior when these seniors were freshmen. The Patriots lost to the Polar Bears again in the 2021 title game before bombarding them 42-7 last year in the quarterfinal round. Now they meet for the fourth year in a row. Fairmont-Independence has officially replaced Fairmont-Bluefield as the annual postseason rivalry that shapes an era of playoff football.
For James Monroe, Saturday’s quarterfinal game performance against Cameron felt like one from its 2022 campaign when the Mavericks were dominant on that side of the ball.
They forced four turnovers, all in the second half, and returned one for a touchdown. The importance of a performance like that can’t be overstated as the offense struggled and even needed a trick play on fourth-and-16 to provide its only offensive score of the game.
Lastly Greenbrier West forced a pair of fumbles and turned Wahama over on downs twice. That’s an offense that averaged 34.8 points per game and you have to think those turnovers make the difference in a two-point game.
Rising to the occasion
Playoff heroes are born every year. This year is no different. As I watched Princeton QB Chance Barker play Friday it was easy to forget he’s just a sophomore. He made throws even collegiate passers struggle to layer over defenders. His 28-yard completion to Dom Collins down the left sideline was placed perfectly over a defender but just far enough inbounds for Collins to make a play on it.
He finished Friday’s quarterfinal game against Parkersburg 20 of 26 passing for 247 yards with two touchdown passes. In two rain games this season (Hurricane and Parkersburg) that were played in monsoons he’s 41 of 50 passing with 555 yards and seven touchdown passes without a turnover.
He excelled out of structure too, scrambling when the play broke down and was rewarded with a 17-yard touchdown run on one such play. Three of his six rushes resulted in either a first down or touchdown. He’s essentially a junior at this point but with two years left to play he’s already one of the best QBs in the state.
There’s more to playing QB than throwing catchable passes. Barker knows where to go, takes advantage of pre-snap looks to get the ball to his slots when uncovered, uses his legs when necessary and rarely ever puts the ball in harm’s way. Before the season I didn’t know how the program would replace Grant Cochran. He helped usher in the current era of success and made the spread attack functional and efficient, paving the way for what Barker’s doing. Yet somehow Barker has erased most of Cochran’s records with one of the best, if not the best, QB season the area has ever seen. A quick glance would support the thought that Barker’s season is right there with the Kennedy winning campaign Will Cole produced for Bluefield in 2008 (3,022 yards passing, 33 TDs and 12 interceptions).
Barker isn’t alone though.
West QB Cole Vandall threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score in a game where West needed points. Was Wahama going to put 50 on the board? No. West’s defense is far too good to allow that. But the White Falcons weren’t going to be blanked either.
It gets tight in the second round of the playoffs. Every play and possession carry more weight so for Vandall to execute to the tune of three scores with one turnover while catching the conversion pass that made the difference speaks volumes.
This section was previously called gold stars but Game Balls makes more sense. Live and learn.
Wilson Boggess, James Monroe – Boggess came away with two interceptions Saturday, returning one 70 yards for a score. John Mustain has been pleased with how his secondary, which graduated numerous starters from last season’s team, has trended of late and Boggess’ performance in a shutout is precisely why.
Emily Saunders, Youngstown State – Saunders, a Wyoming East graduate, earned Horizon League Player of the Week honors for the first week of college basketball season. She averaged 21 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
Kalum Kiser, Princeton – Kiser is a good example of why the open transfer rule is a positive. He made the jump from Class AA at PikeView to Class AAA at Princeton without any assurances he’d get to play. Now he’s arguably the Tigers’ best edge rusher and has been on a tear this postseason. His strip sack against Parkersburg was the play of the season to this point.
Here’s the heavy Greenbrier West part of the column.
After the Cavaliers beat James Monroe earlier this year, I praised the forward-thinking and analytically-charged decision making of West that led to an aggressive offensive approach. As a refresher West trailed 7-0 in that game with under a minute left and had the ball on its side of the field. Instead of kneeling and heading to the locker room the Cavaliers pushed the ball downfield and scored before the break.
What did Kelly Vaughan and his staff do this week? They planned ahead for situational football.
After West scored its final touchdown of the game it could’ve kicked a field goal to go up 21-14 or went for two to make sure Wahama could only tie the game. The Cavs busted out the Philly Special, converted for two and went up 22-14. Wahama, which has gone for two all year long, scored to make it 22-20 but failed on the conversion attempt. It ultimately didn’t make a difference in the outcome of the game but here’s Vaughan explaining the thought process.
“We have a kicker, but we knew they would go for two against us,” Vaughan said. “Once we scored the go-ahead touchdown, there was no doubt we were going for two. I have to praise the kids, they executed it perfectly. It was a beautiful play.”
It’s always refreshing to see coaches accounting for all of the situational scenarios and coaching without reservation. In contrast I was disappointed when Princeton scored against Parkersburg to make it a 37-34 game in the fourth quarter and kicked an extra point to make it 37-35. It worked out for the Tigers but that late in the game with the defense struggling to stop Parkersburg my armchair QB hat said to go for two and make it a one-point game.
If Parkersburg had scored again and kicked a PAT, Princeton would’ve trailed 44-36 had it gone for two and succeeded, meaning it could tie the game with a touchdown and another conversion if needed. It ended up not mattering either way but I believe that level of preparation and decision making for West is a huge reason the program has broken finally broken through to the semis for the first time in 10 years.
Up next, a breakdown of the Kennedy Award race.
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