WHEELING - For the first time in 13 years, the members of Wheeling Central's football program spent a Thanksgiving Day with their families and not practicing for a state semifinal.
''We'd much rather have been practicing,'' said Maroon Knights coach Mike Young, whose club has played for nine titles in those 13 years and won seven of them.
There are plenty of folks who think they'll be back on the practice field on Turkey Day 2013, as Wheeling Central is, again, being looked at as one of the premier teams in West Virginia's Class A.
At least one statewide media poll - and likely a few others - have the Knights entering the preseason as the No. 1 team in the class.
''We appreciate that, but more importantly, we want to be No. 1 in the postseason,'' Young said. ''Our goal is to be playing the first Saturday in December.
''There's probably better competition in single-A than there has been in a long time. Wahama, Madonna, Bishop Donahue, Magnolia, Moorefield, Williamstown, East Hardy. You're having more names as contenders. Part of being picked as No. 1 is our reputation. I'd rather have that reputation than the opposite.''
Wheeling Central experienced something of a down year in 2012 - at least by its own standards - having gone 7-3 in the regular season, then losing 60-34 to East Hardy on the road in the playoffs in a game where ''the roof fell in,'' and ''we couldn't stop the bleeding,'' Young said.
That happened, in part, because the young man they planned on having at quarterback, Parker Henry, tore up his knee in an August practice and missed the entire season.
How big of a loss was that?
Well, Henry, The Intelligencer's 2011 Sophomore of the Year, was coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,259 yards and 17 touchdowns. He added 32 completions in 75 attempts for 696 yards, 11 touchdowns and only one interception.
That injury forced then-junior CJ Burch over to quarterback after he was penned in to be the team's workhorse running back. Burch still wound up leading the club in rushing by a mile (251 carries, 1,673 yards, 21 TDs), but it wasn't what it could have been with both players on the field and the Maroon Knights knew it from the get-go. Burch also completed 44 of 94 passes for 763 yards and nine touchdowns.
''We're going to see (Burch) even running better because he's not going to be in drudgery,'' Young said. ''He was our main staple. We went to the well, and he was the well. He knew it, and he responded.''
They hope to see this year what they envisioned last season.
''They will complement each other,'' Young said. ''They're both intelligent players, both great kids. We're going to have two quarterbacks on the field. That's a threat, and that's a blessing.''
Henry (5-foot-10, 180) is back and ready to pick up where he left off at quarterback in the Maroon Knights' spin offense.
''His leadership is his tempo he plays with, not his verbiage,'' Young said. ''It's just how he plays. He's a force out there.''
Sophomore Matt Gruber (5-8, 175), the backup QB as a freshman where he completed 10 passes and added seven rushes in spot duty, returns to the position, along with freshman Isaac Rine (5-8, 145).
Joining Burch (5-9, 160) in the backfield are seniors Joe John (6-0, 175), junior Ben Duplaga (5-8, 159), sophomores Jeff Gwynn (5-9, 165), Joe Chappelear (5-8, 165), Kevin Keane (5-8, 155), and Brandon Angalich (5-10, 160), and freshmen JaQuan ''Brother'' Jackson (5-8, 140), Tyler Reidel (5-8, 145), Dominick Stevenson (5-8, 135), Ryan Gossett (5-7, 140), and Dillon Baker (5-7, 130).
Of Duplaga, Young said he's ''not real big, not real fast, but he's a smart runner. He knows where the blocks are coming from and that's key in our offense.''
Of the freshmen, he added, ''They all weigh about 80 pounds, but they're all very coachable, they're all very focused on what they're doing, and they're all underclassmen, so they're going to be around for a while. And they're good kids.''
Manning the receiver positions are senior transfer Tom Watkins (6-2, 215) out of New York, junior Matt Pleva (6-1, 165), sophomore Brian Campbell 6-2, 180), and freshmen John Burkhalter (6-1, 180), Clayton McCabe (6-1, 185), and Luke Fahey 6-0, 170).
Young said Burkhalter and McCabe are ''both doing admirable jobs for us in terms of what we see and how they're catching the ball,'' and they're seeing some sparks from Fahey.
Fellow freshmen August Schmidt (6-0, 155) and sophomore Wesley Khale (5-7, 145) are also in the mix.
''We have spots open, and they know it,'' Young said. ''We're giving them every chance to shine.''
The leading returnee, in terms of catches, is Duplaga, who had three for 71 yards.
The offensive line has some veterans and some versatility to it, led by third-year starter and senior Derrick Yocke (5-8, 175) at center.
These are guys who plowed the way for the Knights to run up 2,353 yards and 27 touchdowns a season ago.
Senior Christian Zane (6-0, 200) mans the right tackle position, while classmate Bubba Slyder (6-0, 230) is the right guard.
Senior Jimmy Tankovits (6-0, 210) is the left guard, and sophomore Brett Blazier (5-9, 220) is the left tackle.
But, as Young notes, there are others vying for snaps at those positions in junior Peter Hartzell (5-10, 220), senior Coty Knecht (5-11, 245), who is primarily a defensive player, both sophomore Calverts - Isaac (6-1, 190) and Alex (6-1, 195) - and junior Dalton DeLong (5-9, 170).
''Those guys are all interchangeable at the guard and tackle spots,'' Young said. ''We're versatile enough where Blazier could go to center, Yocke could go to guard. Our line coaches in Coach (Jim) Wolfe and coach (Ed) Anderson do a tremendous job preparing these guys to get off the ball and block and make it happen.''
The defense lost its leader in tackles and sacks (Braxton Nolte), forced fumbles (Nick Naumann), and interceptions (Michael Pleva), but brings back its leader in fumble recoveries and its second-leading sack artist (Knecht).
Slyder and Watkins flip over as defensive ends, with Tankovits and Knecht at tackles and Blazier being the top backup there.
Other defensive linemen are Alex Calvert, Hartzell, sophomores Caleb McCord (6-2, 270) and Lucas Herrick (5-10, 185), Zane, and freshmen Zach McAbee (5-10, 200) and Joey Main (6-0, 165).
The linebackers are John, Yocke, Isaac Calvert, Angalich, Gruber, Chappelear, Keane, and freshmen Reidel, Chantz Chambers (5-9, 170), Fahey, Gossett, and Michael Niggemyer (6-1, 170).
In the defensive backfield, Matt Pleva is joined by Campbell, Stevenson, Jackson, Rine, Baker, Burch, Burkhalter, Khale, Duplaga, and Gossett.
Henry could play here too, ''if absolutely necessary at this point in time,'' Young said in early August.
Henry is the team's punter and Schmidt is the placekicker.
''I think we can (make a run),'' Young said. ''We know injuries can play a huge part in that. I think our kids feel optimistic because of how they did finish last year, which wasn't on par with our tradition.
''I think we'll be in the hunt.''
Though they thought they might be playing their home games at Wheeling Jesuit, they'll be back at Wheeling Island Stadium in 2013, where they have eight home games and all 10 of their contests will be played on artificial turf.
''I think those are plusses,'' Young said. ''I think our schedule is going to be be very challenging.''
Young's coaching staff includes offensive coordinator Jason Rine, defensive coordinator Jamie Bordas, Wolfe, Jimbo Wodusky, Felix Bruno, Anderson, Shannon Kuchinski and DeVaughn Gordon.
CJ Burch; Parker Henry; Joe John; Bubba Slyder; Coty Knecht; James Tankovits; Tom Watkins; Derrick Yocke; Christian Zane
Ben Duplaga; Peter Hartzell; Matt Pleva
Brandon Angalich; Brett Blazier; Alexander Calvert; Isaac Calvert; Brian Campbell; Joe Chappelear; Dalton DeLong; Matt Gruber; Jeff Gwynn; Lucas Herrick; Kevin Keane; Wesley Khale; Caleb McCord; August Schmidt
Dillon Baker; John Burkhalter; Conner Calmbacher; Chantz Chambers; Luke Fahey; Ryan Gossett; JaQuan Jackson; Brandon Johnson; Joey Main; Zachary McAbee; Clayton McCabe; Michael Niggemyer; Jacob Pleva; Tyler Reidel; Isaac Rine; Dom Stevenson