WHEELING - There are many around the state that would love to know the secret to Wheeling Central's success. Around these parts though, there's really no secret at all.
Look back through the annals of Maroon Knights football and you'll find one common denominator in every state championship season - the name Peluchette. First it was Rick Peluchette, who played on the 1979 Class AA winner, and he was followed by nephews Nathan and Alex.
Saturday night at Wheeling Island Stadium, quarterback Lee and receiver McKenzie, along with cousin Maxx added their name to Peluchette lore by helping the Maroon Knights to a 28-14 victory against Wahama for the program's eighth crown. Rick is and uncle to all three.
''The feeling that my brothers had, I have now,'' said Lee, a junior, who completed 7 of 14 passes for 233 yards and a pair of touchdowns - both to McKenzie. ''If I didn't get it I don't know what I would have done.''
The quarterback-receiver relationship can sometimes be a tenuous one, particularly when the latter drops what would have been a sure long touchdown pass in a state title game, such as McKenzie did Saturday night. But when you're brothers, you don't scream and yell and are more likely to put an arm around the guy than anything else.
''No, he didn't give me any grief - he knew the opportunity would come again, and it did,'' McKenzie said.
With the Maroon Knights up 13-0 in the third quarter, Lee took the snap out of the shotgun and lofted a perfect pass down the sideline that hit McKenzie in stride, resulting in a 53-yard score that proved to be the game-winner.
''I caught that one,'' McKenzie said with a laugh.
Added Lee: I knew he would come back and make a play; he's done it all year.''
There's immense pressure being a member of the Wheeling Central football program, where anything less than a victory in Week 14 is seen as a down season. And when you've got family members constantly telling stories and showing off their rings, the weight is racheted up another level.
''We're either not talking or we're talking about football,'' McKenzie said of the conversation in the family's home.
But one of the advantage in this particular pass-catching combination is, no matter what time of the year it is you don't have to look far to find someone to throw the football with in the backyard. In fact, that's protocol in this case.
''We've been gunning for this since we've been like 5,'' Lee said. ''We knew it was going to be our time once, and it's our time.
''We just tried to practice hard all summer and work on our routes to be here.
''To be here and to be the best quarterback-wide receiver tandem.''
We see the scene almost weekly across the land: a star player doesn't agree with a coach's call or the way he's used and heads to the bench after giving his coach an earful. That doesn't happen at Wheeling Central, especially between offensive coordinator Jason Rine and tailback Marcus Clifford.
''We text a lot and are always just up on the game,'' said Clifford, who ran for 233 yards on 27 carries to cement himself as one of the greatest ever to play the position at the school. ''He believes in me, trusts in me, and I just keep telling him to believe in me.
''He does, and it's great.''
Rine was moved to near tears postgame when asked about the relationship. Clifford was injured toward the middle of the fourth quarter and it looked as if his night was finished. He gutted it out and returned, but few could have imagined Clifford carrying the ball anymore.
''I said to myself 'this is the last time I'm ever going to get the chance to give No. 22 the ball and I'm going to give it to him as many times as it takes to win this football game,' '' said Rine, who pocketed his sixth title as a coach.
Clifford carried the ball every time but once - an Austin Frohnapfel 2-yard touchdown - on the game-clinching drive.
''When in doubt, you hand it to 22,'' Rine said. ''But the most important thing about him is, I have three sons and they want to grow up and be Marcus Clifford.
''I'd be the most proud father in the world.''
They Earned It
As if the ridiculously difficult schedule wasn't enough to deal with, Wheeling Central was hit with more than its fair share of injuries this season. But as defensive coordinator Jamie Bordas pointed out to his unit in the locker room before the game, the doubters counted the Knights out several times.
The end result was the seventh crown for the school in 11 seasons.
''I think they earned it well this year because they overcame the adverse situations,'' head coach Mike Young said. ''We had kids step up on this team when guys were hurt and that just speaks volumes for what Wheeling Central is and the character of individuals and the families they come from.''
For the first time since 1987, Wheeling Central wore white jerseys with white pants. And as a surprise, the staff presented the team with new jerseys, complete with their names on the back, when it returned to the locker room following pregame stretching.
It was quite the surprise as the players cheered loudly upon seeing them for the first time.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net