WHEELING - Wheeling Park has a rich tradition of lining the field - sideline-to-sideline - on Friday nights with athletic specimens. The downside to that of course, is that the Patriots generally have lacked the sheer size needed to deal with the Morgantowns, Universitys, Martinsburgs and Cabell Midlands that await almost yearly in the West Virginia Class AAA playoffs.
The general consensus among Mountain State media and fans, is that was the one thing keeping Coach Chris Daugherty's club from truly contending for a state championship. That thought process will be tested this fall because the Patriots look to have it all, including the necessary bulk.
To put it another way, this could turn out to be the school's best team since 1991, when Park lost 20-13 to Capital in the final AAA title contest played in Charleston.
"That's putting a lot of pressure on us and I was around that team in 1991,'' Daugherty said. "I see a lot of similarities from when I came through. I was here and we had a real nice run in '89, '90 and '91. But we had help from every class.
''My senior year we had a really nice sophomore class and it was that '91 class.
''I see that in this locker room.''
The Patriots coaching staff is treading lightly when it comes to expectations because, after all, these are still 15-18-year olds, and its easy to get caught up in the whirlwind. Instead of being talked up within the locker room, players are being cautioned.
"We talked about potential is getting used with us a lot and that's really a dirty word, because it kind of means you're not where people think you could be," Daugherty said. "We're trying to build the mentality of potential is ugly.
''We want to go do it, and until we do, that's all it amounts to, is a little bit of press and a little bit of talk.''
People are talking, all right, and for once the chatter is focused on what's up front. It starts with, but is certainly not limited to senior Matt Hackathorn (6-foot-4, 260 pounds), an Honorable Mention all-state player last season at right tackle where he returns for his senior season.
"He was a quarterback his entire life but (his sophomore) year we asked him to move to tackle because of how long and big he was and he said 'yes, sir,' and that was the end of it.
"This is his third year and he's up to 260 and is getting college looks."
Eric McCave (6-3, 230) is listed at the starter at right tackle and is getting rave reviews for his mentality and work ethic.
Senior Josh Messner, who is up to 225 pounds, is penciled in at center a season after he likely would have had the job were it not for injuries.
The surprise is left guard Elliott O'Brien who has shed some serious weight, getting down from 330 to about 275 pounds. Daugherty said he has made himself into a football player and the coaching staff is "very happy with him."
Henry Gompers (6-2, 230) looks to be the left tackle.
Austin Curnes has a chance to help a little bit, as does Troy Salatino. Both are sophomores. Senior Chris Freeboroug could also see time.
"I think we're going to come out of the tunnel and some people are going to find out we look like a Triple-A team should,'' Daugherty said. "You look back two years ago and we were lucky to be 215 - that was probably one of our biggest linemen across the board. We had great skill and linemen I would go to battle with, but God only made them 190, 205 pounds.
"But we don't want to just put big out there ... we want to be athletic.''
To that end, you have to like what the Patriots have at tight end. Junior Chalmer Moffett burst onto the scene last season and ended up as a terror from his defensive end spot. He's forced Daugherty and company to use the tight end, something they haven't done in a while.
"We haven't for three years because I think tight end is the toughest thing to find,'' Daugherty said. "I think we have a true tight end in Chalmer Moffett that is going to play Saturday football. We've got to find a second tight end to go with him.''
Sophomore Davion Cooper and seniors Jordan McCormick and Dustin McAdams were vying for that opportunity in preseason.
They're hoping to pave the way for an explosive set of skill players that were a bit banged up in the preseason. Bryce Ingram, a second team all-state utility selection who ran for more than 1,200 yards a season ago, is back for his senior season, but was nursing a nagging injury.
Joining him on the sideline early on was first-team linebacker Geremy Paige, who is another senior that will double as one of the team's fullback options. He'll share blocking duties with junior Theo Blackston to give the Patriots a dominating tandem.
"Geremy's something special. He's strong and explosive and finished the season out at 196 (pounds), but he weighs 218," Daugherty said. "He squatted 560 in the summer, so he's a different animal than he was last year. Shepherd's already offered him a full ride.
''I'm hoping that someone in the MAC comes along and says they don't care that he's 5-11, 6-foot.''
Blackston really came on as a sophomore and has the look of an all-state player.
The 1991 connections continue in the form of sophomore running back Savion Johnson. He's the son of former Patriots standout back Daryl 'Boogie' Johnson, now a coach with the team. Savion Johnson can play either tailback or fullback.
"You've got a young kid in Savion that's got a bright future. On a lot of teams, and even at Wheeling Park, Savion starts or has a shot,'' Daugherty said. "Now he'll probably get some carries and he'll get his turn, but that's all it will be because if Bryce Ingram is healthy, which we expect him to be at some point in time, it's tough to pull him off the field.
"Right now we have four kids that are Friday night ready."
The returner at quarterback is a good one in senior Zach Phillips. A first-time starter a season ago, Phillips completed 59 percent of his passes for more than 1,200 yards, and even bigger things are expected this time around.
"He's been able to do some things that we really have never asked our quarterbacks here to do,'' Daugherty said. "If we were going to throw a 15-yard out we were going to move our quarterback. I can leave him in the pocket and he can get that ball out there and it makes it nice calling plays.
"He's the one kid that if we have an injury, and not to say Killian Coyne couldn't do it, but he's the one kid we can't afford to lose.''
One surprise could be the running ability Phillips possesses. Even though he wasn't asked to do it much a season ago, that won't be the case this season.
"A lot of colleges are looking at him because he can run and move in the pocket,'' Daugherty said.
At receiver, the focal point will again be diminutive second team All-West Virginia standout Eric Banks, a senior coming off a season in which he hauled in better than 30 passes for more than 500 yards, despite not having a great grasp on the position.
"He's taken the time to really learn how to run routes and that's going to change his whole season,'' Daugherty said. "He's not going to come off the field a whole lot. He's so explosive and and works so hard.
"He's up to 165 and played all last year at 140, but I didn't tell anybody that.''
The rest of the receiving chores will be left up to a committee that includes Josh Angalich, Michael Grove, Nick Vargo and Elijah Bell, the younger brother of former Park multi-sport stars Richard Hall and Vondel Bell.
Wheeling Park will change to a 50 defense this season in an attempt to make teams throw the football. The size up front, though Daugherty said he isn't sure exactly who will patrol the area, will aid this task tremendously.
"If we have open spots that are being contended for, that's probably the one spot we are judging every day,'' the coach said. "We've used everything under the sun as far as combinations."
Big Gary Hagan, at 340 pounds, will platoon at nose tackle with McCave. Hackathorn will see some time at end, as will Moffett. Other than those four, positions were up for grabs late into the preseason.
The availability of sophomore Isaiah Myers was also still in question following a lawnmower accident.
Paige and Blackston will be the inside linebackers, with Savion Johnson and Max Steinman capable of providing a rare breather now and then.
"I actually feel bad for Theo and I talked to him. I said 'Paige is a year older and you might be the second-best linebacker in the state of West Virginia, but they're not giving kudos to both linebackers.' " Daugherty said. "It's just hard to do because there's so many good kids out there at other schools, and I get that.
"I just told him not to play football for that and he said 'I don't.' "
CJ Pelky has a chance to play what the Patriots call their 'Badger,' which is a safety/linebacker hybrid position. He could see time there, as could Savion Johnson and Niko Kefauver.
Plenty of people could see time in the secondary, all dependent on the situation. Those probably seeing playing time are Ingram, Banks, Grove, Bell and junior Nick Vargo.
The kicking game is in the capable hands (foot) of senior Liam Casey, who came on strong as last season progressed.
"He's a thousand times better than he was even last year and is another kid that gained a lot of valuable experience and is consistently kicking it inside the 10 and occasionally into the end zone,'' Daugherty said.
Chase Adams was challenging for the punting duties.
It's no surprise that Banks will handle the majority of the return chores. But Grove will be used in certain instances.
Coming off two straight postseason appearances, the goals have changed at Park.
"Making the playoffs is now not that special,'' Daugherty said. "We want to host a game and it's one of the things we have talked about.
"I think these kids know that and our coaching staff knows that.''
Assisting Daugherty are Drew Beihl, Chris Dunaway, Shane Glass, Tim Ickes, Johnson, Rick Marsh, Keith Phillips, Bob Pyle, Andy Seals, Joey Subasic, Jack Doyle and Doug Boyd.
Josh Angalich, Eric Banks, Keandre Benjamin, Liam Casey, Chris Freeboroug, Elijah Ford, Matt Hackathorn, Gary Hagan, Casey Hewitt, Bryce Ingram, Niko Kefauver, Jacob Key, Brandon Luff, Dustin McAdams, Eric McCave, Jordan McCormick, Josh Messner, Matt Muffney, Zach Musilli, Geremy Paige, CJ Pelky, Zach Phillips, Devon Rose, Aaron Schrimp, Joe Sharpsky, Max Steinman, Austin Vance, Nick Wolfe.
Zach Amend, Theo Blackston, Michael Corum, Killian Coyne, Tyler Fleming, Cody Flick, Henry Gompers, Dylan Grimm, Michael Grove, Shane McGee, Chalmer Moffett, Sebastian Nolan, Elliot O'Brien, Logan Pickens, Tommy Ricker, Damon Rouse, Nick Vargo, Spencer Wiley.
Chase Adams, Jaelan Bartlet, Mike Bator, Elijah Bell, James Coles, Davion Cooper, Richard Cummings, Austin Curnes, Brandon Foose, Max Hammonds, Harrison Harttong, DeMonte Johnson, Savion Johnson, Jake Laing, Dalton Mattern, Clay McDonald, Isaiah Myers, Nick Nardone, Zach Nolte, Jake Pedelose, Tyler Robinson, Spencer Rodgers, Troy Salantino, Isaac Turner, Cole Velas, Antonio Venskoske.