By NICK BEDWAY
WHEELING - Nothing could be more satisfying to a coach than when his players exceed expectations.
Such was the case last season for Wheeling Central Catholic under the direction of the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference Coach of the Year Mike Young.
''It was truly a remarkable year,'' Young said. ''Our goal always is to be playing the first week of December on the island in the state championship game. But 13-1 was something special and above and beyond what we thought was possible heading into last season.
''It showed how a team made up of athletic kids and, more importantly, quality individuals, got better as the year went on.''
The 35-21 victory against previously undefeated Williamstown on a frosty early December evening at Wheeling Island Stadium wrapped up a second straight West Virginia Class A championship, and it was remarkably the Maroon Knights' eighth title in the last 12 years.
Aug.24: Harrison Central7 p.m.
Sept. 1: Weirton Madonna7 p.m.
Sept. 8: Westinghouse7 p.m.
Sept. 14 Linsly7 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Magnolia7:30 p.m.
Sept. 29: Alderdice7:30 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Shadyside7 p.m.
Oct. 13: at Mingo Central2 p.m.
Oct. 19: at Caldwell7 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Bishop Donahue7 p.m.
Win 8, Lose 2
The only blemish on that memorable campaign was a loss in the final game of the regular season at the hands of undefeated city rival Linsly, a private school not eligible for the SSAC-sponsored playoffs but with personnel that likely was good enough to have held its own in the Mountain State's big school division.
''We ran into quite a juggernaut against Linsly but everybody that played them met the same fate,'' Young reminded. ''Kudos to them and their success. Our kids did not back down from Linsly by an means, but they had the better team.''
Young, an assistant coach under the late Jim Thomas during Central's championship seasons in 2000, 2002 and 2004, has been the guy in charge of the school's last five state title-winners. Chances for another championship year again look good as a solid nucleus is on hand.
Returning are 10 two-year letterwinners and eight players that earned their letters for the first time last season. Four standouts on this list were first team All-West Virginia Class A honorees - quarterback Parker Henry, placekicker Bradley Cottrell and linemen Nick Naumann and Braxton Nolte.
However, lost to graduation were a dozen stellar performers, including running back Gino Bianconi who rushed for 2,139 yards and 31 touchdowns, added three more scores as a receiver. His impressive totals included setting Class A state finals records for total carries (39). rushing yards (355) and touchdowns (five).
Two other vital rushing components, Eric Gompers (437 yards) and Andrew Keane (471) also picked up their diplomas along with Patrick Biega, Corey Bryan, Brandon Gast, Ian Iuliucci, Michal Palkovic, Connor Peklinsky, David Stanley, Ian Yahnke and second team All-Valley lineman Seth Yost. Biega will be continuing his athletic career this year as a member of the baseball team at Wheeling Jesuit University. Yahnke, first team All-Valley choice and a clutch performer as a receiver and a standout in the defensive secondary, led the Maroon Knights in interceptions with six. Gompers tied for second on the team with 96 tackles while Yost turned in 5 quarterback sacks and recovered three fumbles.
Perhaps the most stunning achievement last fall by a Maroon Knights football player was provided by The Intelligencer's Sophomore of the Year Henry, who achieved instant success during his initial varsity start at quarterback.
Henry, also a special teams performer, returned the season-opening kickoff for 52 yards to set up a score and later rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage to key a 31-13 victory against Bellaire. He kept using his blazing speed and quickness the rest of the season to rush for 1,259 yards and 17 touchdowns. Henry wasn't asked to throw much because of the effectiveness of the Maroon Knights' spin option offense. But when he did, he was also effective with 32 completions in 75 attempts for 696 yards, 11 touchdowns and only one interception.
''Just to see a sophomore in Parker Henry step up and do what he did was an inspiration for the people surrounding him,'' Young said. ''That was a hidden part of our success and I say hidden because expectations weren't what the outcome turned out to be for Parker and our football team.
''Without a doubt, he is one of the most explosive players at that position I have coached.
''Parker is someone that opponents have to key in on because he can score from anywhere on the field.''
Backing up the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Henry at quarterback is junior two-year letterman C.J.Burch, also one of the Maroon Knights' tailbacks. Waiting in the wings is freshman Matt Gruber (5-6, 140).
Central could be looking at a running back by committee situation this year as replacements must befound for the terrific trio of Bianconi, Keane and Gompers.
In fact, two of the returning all-state linemen of a year ago, Nolte (5-11, 230) and Naumann (5-9, 190) are now part of the running back mix.
''Nick and Braxton have shown they can open a hole. Now we will see if they can run through one,'' Young said.
Both are two-year lettermen that have excelled offensively and defensively. Nolte, the tight end when he isn't lined up in the backfield, had five receptions for 103 yards and three touchdowns as a junior.
Defensively, he was a terror to Central opponents, leading the Maroon Knights in tackles (109) and quarterback sacks (seven).
Despite being hobbled by injuries to both ankles most of the year, Naumann's play at the vital pulling guard position helped clear the path for the Maroon Knights to rack up more than 5,000 yards of offense. Defensively, he was charted with 79 tackles and 2 sacks.
Also looking for their share of opportunities to carry the football are Burch, junior Joe John (6-1, 180, another highly regarded defender); senior J.T. Nixon (5-5, 160), sophomore Ben Duplaga (5-8, 140) and promising freshman Joe Chappelear (5-6, 130).
Rounding out the list of running backs are freshmen Brandon Angalich (5-7, 130), Jeff Gwynn (5-9, 145) and Kevin Keane (5-5, 120).
Michael Pleva (6-3, 175); Cottrell (6-1, 150), the all-state kicker a year ago, and Brandon Wallace (6-4, 175) are three seniors heading the list of receiving candidates. Good things are expected from Pleva, whose only catch last fall resulted in a 59-yard touchdown. Cottrell kicked five field goals and finished with 65 points in 14 games while also handling the kickoff and punting duties.
Nate Bakaitis, a 5-10, 150-pound sophomore, has been opening the coaches' eyes during his bid for a spot on the receiving corps. Also in the mix are seniors Luke Harto (5-8, 145) and Keenan Goletz (5-5, 140), sophomore Matt Pleva (5-11, 145) and freshmen Brian Campbell (6-2, 170), Wes Kahle (5-6, 115) and Gus Schmidt (6-0, 130).
When Nolte is in the backfield, one of the receivers will take over at tight end.
Three seniors head the list of tackle candidates. Chance Siebieda (6-2, 240) and Michael Schwarz lettered as juniors and also vying for playing time is Chris Ernest (6-1, 215), along with junior letterman Christian Zane (6-0, 225) and sophomore Caleb McCord (6-1, 280).
Jimmy Tankovits, a 6-0, 225-pound junior letterman, will be at one of the guard spots. When Naumann is in the backfield, the other side will be manned by one of several juniors: Gary Gwynn, two-year letterman and another defensive standout; Coty Knecht (5-10, 210); Bubba Slyder (6-0, 190) and Nick Schubert (5-11, 190). Freshman Alex Calvert (5-11, 190) is another good possibility.
Coming off an excellent sophomore season is center Derek Yocke (5-7, 200). When he needs spelled, Siebieda can assume the ball-snapping duties. Also listed at center is freshman Brent Blazier (5-7, 200).
Completing the list of offensive linemen are sophomore Peter Hartzell (5-11, 200) and freshmen Isaac Calvert (5-9, 175), Alex's twin brother; Dalton DeLong (5-8, 170) and Lucas Herrick (5-8, 195).
Young also will do some mixing and matching with the defense as several players can line up at different positions.
Nolte, Schwarz, Tankovits, Knecht and DeLong are among the ends. The tackles list includes Siebieda, Hartzell, Ernest, Zane, Alex Calvert, Schubert, Herrick, McCord and Blazier.
John, credited with 47 tackles, joins Henry as the starters at outside linebacker, supported by Harto, Gruber, Nixon and Jeff Gwynn.
Returning at inside linebacker are Naumann and Gary Gwynn, the latter returning from knee surgery.
Before being injured, Gwynn had 96 tackles, tied with the graduated Gompers for second-best among Maroon Knights defenders. Others that could line up as linebackers are Yocke, Chappelear and Isaac Calvert.
The secondary will include Michael Pleva, Bakaitis, Burch, Wallace, Duplaga, Keane, Kahle, Cottrell, Campbell, Angalich and Matt Pleva.
With only 39 players on the roster, 13 being freshmen, Young remains concerned about the numbers game.
''Injuries are going to be a factor. Hopefully, we don't have them,'' Young said. ''If we get some people hurt, the hope is nobody will miss any significant time."
Central's schedule includes several newcomers as Harrison Central, Magnolia, Mingo Central and two Pittsburgh city schools, Westinghouse and Allderdice, were picked up as replacements for Bellaire, Edison, Bridgeport, Steubenville Catholic Central and Pittsburgh Oliver.
The Huskies from Harrison Central will serve as the Maroon Knights' opening opponent Friday night at Wheeling Island Stadium.
''Harrison always has a talented team and Justin Kropka does an outstanding job of coaching them,'' Young said. ''The entire first part of our schedule will be a big factor as to the outcome of our season.''
After the opener, Madonna, Westinghouse, Linsly and Magnolia follow to wrap up the first half of season.
''Playing smart and getting out of the gate quickly will be important. We'll have a lot of people in new positions that have yet to be challenged. But when I look at our attitude and our team chemistry, I have great faith and confidence in them to get the job done,'' he concluded.
Young's highly capable coaching staff includes offensive coordinator Jason Rine, defensive coordinator Jamie Bordas, Jim Wolfe, Jimbo Wodusky, Felix Bruno, Ed Anderson, Shannon Kuchinski and DeVaughn Gordon.
Bradley Cottrell, Chris Ernest, Keenan Goletz, Luke Harto, Nick Naumann, J.T. Nixon, Braxton Nolte, Michael Pleva, Michael Schwarz, Chance Siebieda, Brandon Wallace.
C.J. Burch, Gary Gwynn, Parker Henry, Joe John, Coty Knecht, Nick Schubert, Bubba Slyder, Jimmy Tankovits, Derek Yocke, Christian Zane.
Nate Bakaitis, Ben Duplaga, Peter Hartzell, Caleb McCord, Matt Pleva.
Brandon Angalich, Brent Blazier, Alex Calvert, Isaac Calvert, Brian Campbell, Joe Chappelear, Dalton DeLong, Matt Gruber, Jeff Gwynn, Lucas Herrick, Wes Kahle, Kevin Keane, Gus Schmidt.