WHEELING - Relentless is the word Wheeling Central Catholic football coach Mike Young used the most when describing the rushing styles of the Maroon Knights' two backfield aces, Gino Bianconi and Parker Henry.
During Saturday afternoon's 37-14 pasting of previously-undefeated East Hardy in a West Virginia Class A semifinal contest played in front of a big crowd at Wheeling Island Stadium, this ultra-quick duo combined to run for 338 yards and four touchdowns as Central punched its ninth ticket to the state championship game in 12 years.
Bianconi, the senior tailback, dashed for 176 yards on 18 carries, scoring TDs on runs of 51, 4 and 4 yards. Henry, the speedy sophomore coming off a career-best 275-yard, 4-TD effort in a quarterfinal victory against Moorefield the previous week, ran for 162 yards, adding one six-pointer from 17 yards out.
Wheeling Central’s Gino Bianconi (6) looks for yardage during Saturday’s matinee against East Hardy at Wheeling Island Stadium.
Photo Art Limann
''They just don't go down easily," said Young after watching all his running backs break though numerous tackles and then turning on the jets once they found daylight. ''It's exactly what you want from your backs when you give them the football.
State champions in 2000, '02, '04, '05, '06, '07 and last fall, Wheeling Central (12-1) will return to the home turf again this Saturday night to face familiar playoff rival Williamstown (13-0) to wind up what should be another exciting Super Six weekend.
Williamstown, 24-7 winners against last seasons's runner-up Wahama this past Friday night, faced the Maroon Knights three straight seasons in state championship games from 2005 through 2007 and came up short on the scoreboard on every occasion. However, in 2008 the Yellowjackets eliminated visiting Central in the state semifinals by one point and went on to win the title the following week.
While the Maroon Knights and Yellowjackets will be preparing for another showdown, the end of line for the best season in East Hardy school history was reached .
''It's been a great year for us but this is still tough," Cougars coach Chad Williams said while wiping away tears after his team lost during East Hardy's first state semifinal.
''We really hadn't trailed in a game all year. When they came out like that (28 points in the first half), it took us a little while to respond. By then it was too late. We had already dug ourselves too big of a hole."
Finishing the season 11-1, East Hardy had an early chance to take the ball away but were drawn into an offside penalty on fourth-and-two near midfield.
The opening drive given new life, Central also was able to overcome two holding penalties before going up 7-0 when Henry flipped a screen pass over the onrushing Cougars line to Braxton Nolte and the determined junior tight end did the rest, causing three defenders to miss him before crossing the goal line for a 21-yard touchdown.
East Hardy's first possession ended with a three-and-out, but Shawn Childers' got off a 50-yard punt that was downed at Wheeling Central 4. Twelve plays and 96 yards later the score was 14-0. Bianconi broke off a 51-yard scoring run, making two neat cuts before hitting the sideline and using his speed to outrun the defense.
East Hardy relied on its stellar four-year quarterback Kollin Foltz to reach paydirt with just 3 seconds to play in the opening quarter. Foltz barely overthrew what would have been a scoring connection with Joshua Parker on the first snap of the second quarter. One play later, Foltz looked for Jamie Miller running a post from the right side and this time the pass was right on the money resulting in a 72-yard touchdown. A poor snap on the conversion attempt resulted in an incomplete pass, leaving Central ahead 14-6.
The TD strike to Miller would prove to be the highlight of the day for Foltz, who came into the game having thrown for more than 8,000 yards during his career, including 2,500 this season. Harassed by a Central defense led by Nolte and young sophomore Gary Gwynn, who would leave with a knee injury during the second half that has his status questionable for the state finals, Foltz completed just 10 of 26 passes for 173 yards with one pick. Another interception was erased because of a penalty.
''Kollin has seen this kind of pressure before but generally when he gets rushed like that, nobody can cover our receivers," Williams said. ''They were pressuring and still covering in the secondary. That is an athletic football team we played.
''This was really a bad matchup for us. We do better playing those big, power, slow teams. Speed is usually our game too, but they were a little faster than us."
Taking over at the 35 after the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, Central kept the ball for nearly five minutes again, scoring on third-and-goal from the 4 when Bianconi, running a counter left, cut inside off tackle and went in standing up. Bradley Cottrell's PAT up the lead to 21-6 with 7:25 left in the half. Henry sparked this drive with runs 30 and 19 yards.
Nolte and Gwynn combined for another sack and Andrew Keane broke through to drop Foltz in the backfield again, forcing a punt that was downed at the Cougars 44. Henry, after faking a handoff, broke to the outside and went in from 27 yards out for a 28-6 advantage.
By halftime, Central had rushed for over 300 yards, Henry accounting for 146 of that total on 17 carries and Bianconi collecting 142 for his 13 attempts.
The Cougars, whose only first down of the opening half came on the touchdown toss, finally get some offense going starting the third quarter. The visitors drove 67 yards with Foltz getting the TD on a quarterback draw carry up the middle.
East Hardy's attempt at an onside kick was recovered by Wheeling Central sophomore Derek Yocke at the Cougars 47. Bianconi and Henry carried four ties each before Gino took it over from the 4, increasing the lead to 34-12 with 4:53 remaining in the third quarter.
Miller then fumbled on the next kickoff and Luke Harto gave possession back to the Maroon Knights at the Cougars 37. With Henry now out of the game and Patrick Biega taking over at quarterback, Central drove to the 14 and picked up three points on Cottrell's 31-yard field goal.
The only scoring in the fourth quarter came thanks to a safety when East Hardy's Parker blocked a punt, knocking the ball out of the end zone.
Even before the issue had been decided, the game saw a lot of chippiness, causing Young to play it safe by getting most of his starters out of the game.
''I didn't want to see any of our guys getting badgered and possibly be kicked out of the game," Young said. ''I reminded the referee and our players that we are playing another game next week and I didn't want to see anything bad happen to our players."
Penalties were a game-long problem on both sides, especially for the Maroon Knights as they were penalized 16 times for 160 yards. East Hardy was penalized 13 times for 92 yards.
''I thought offensively and defensively, we did a great job against against East Hardy which also has a very talented group of kids," he said. ''For us to get pressure on the quarterback and still contain him was huge.''