WHEELING - It doesn't occur very often that the Wheeling Central football team drops an opener or, in fact, loses its final game of any season.
Last Friday night's 14-7 setback to Harrison Cen-tral marked the first time in Mike Young's eight years at the helm that the Maroon Knights were handed a season-opening defeat.
Their record in close-out games also is an impressive 5-2, with each victory occurring in the West Virginia Class A championship contests including last year's 34-20 victory against Williamstown.
Michael Pleva (11) takes off up the field during last Friday’s loss to Harrison Central.
Photo by Alex Kozlowski
Central did lose twice in state semifinal contests during this span, coming up short against Williamstown in 2008 and to Weirton Madonna the following year. On both occasions, those teams went to capture state titles.
Saturday night at Wheeling Island Stadium, the Maroon Knights will try and square their 2012 record at 1-1 when they play host to the talented Blue Dons, 49-0 conquerors of a youthful Valley club in a mutual opener on the turf at the new Jimmy Carey Stadium in Weirton.
''I felt we played a good second half once we realized we needed to be a little more physical,'' said Young, whose team also was playing for the first time without injured all-state quarterback Parker Henry. The junior phenom could miss the season after sustaining a severe knee injury during Central's final scrimmage.
''While I was disappointed in the first half, the kids came around,'' Young said. ''I thought some of them naturally were hesitant because they were playing in new positions and the others were starting for the first time''
The Maroon Knights still managed to rush for 270 yards, with 225 of that total provided by junior two-year letterman C.J. Burch, Henry's replacement at quarterback. He also saw duty at his more familiar tailback position when freshman Matt Gruber entered the game.
''We will be looking at all our options at quarterback,'' Young said. ''Matt got his feet wet and I thought he showed some poise for being a freshman.''
Central's passing game didn't register a completion against Harrison Central, leaving Young and his coaching staff with another concern this week. If Gruber gets the starting call, he'll have a limited passing package available.
''Actually, just because one will be at quarterback on the first play, it doesn't mean there won't be a change for the second play,'' Young said.
Blue Dons mentor Doug Taylor certainly can sympathize with Central's quarterback situation after having lost his likewise young and athletic QB Ross Comis heading into the playoffs a year ago. Comis looked sharp against the Lumberjacks last week, rushing eight times for 108 yards including touchdown scampers of 53 and 17 yards.
''Anybody will tell you that when you lose your starting quarterback, it is a big blow to the offense and the team,'' Taylor said. ''But that Burch kid is very talented and he is a threat no matter what position he plays. That kid has some wheels.''
Injuries also have been a major concern for the Blue Dons early this year, causing the second-year coach to cancel their second scrimmage.
''We were very banged up during the preseason and I thought it was important that we did everything we could to get most if not all of our starters back and healthy. It worked out pretty well for us,'' Taylor said.
He stressed that one of his priorities in attempt to keep Comis healthy included limiting the number of carries he gets by pulling him out for a series now and then. The Blue Dons will also try and rest when they can on defense.
Along with Comis, Madonna's offense features Nick Ossman, another legitimate threat who also had injury problems during his sophomore season when he missed four games.
Against Valley, Ossman bolted for 127 yards on 12 attempts. Along with rushing scores of 1, 1, and 5 yards, he accounted for a fourth touchdown by bringing back a punt 65 yards to paydirt.
''Our offense has to keep mixing it up,'' Taylor said. ''But we want to keep it simple and do a solid job blocking against Central's aggressive defense.''
One big advantage the Blue Dons might have is their experience and size along the line. Tackle Josh Martin is 6-foot-11 and weighs in at 285 pounds. His brother, freshman Nathan Martin, who backs up senior Quinton Hukill at the other tackle spot, is already 6-4 and weighs 235. Madonna also returns guards Garrett Beaver and Travis Brown, along with center Charlie Kotten.
On defense, the Blue Dons' have some concerns about stopping the Maroon Knights running game even though Henry won't be there to torture them.
''Along with Burch, Central has a couple other excellent backs in (Nick) Naumann and (Braxton) Nolte. They just keep coming at you,'' Taylor said.
''I also thought the Gruber kid did well once he got into the game. Being a freshman, you know he is only going to get better and I still think they are going to be able to develop a passing game. With that (Michael) Pleva kid out there, they have a tall target. He really got up on defense when he made that interception.''
Young was impressed from scouting reports and watching film on the Blue Dons.
''Comis and Ossman are very athletic. They play hard-nosed football and Coach Taylor has them playing together,'' he said.
The Maroon Knights coaches know there's a lot of football yet to be played and one loss isn't cause for much concern.
''We came out of last week's game pretty good injury-wise and I'm satisfied that we played Wheeling Central football in the second half,'' he said.
When asked about the early season plan of using several players at different positions, Young said ''People have to remember we are a single-A school that has to have our best athletes on the field in the positions where we as coaches feel they can contribute to help us win a football game.''