HUNTINGTON - Wheeling Park made a living this season by starting fast and burying the opposition before it even realized what had happened. The Patriots found themselves on the wrong side of that equation Saturday night at Bob Stang Stadium, and because of that, there will not be a Wheeling Park celebration at next weekend's Super Six state football championships.
The Patriots (11-2) dug themselves a 21-point, first-half hole against the No. 1-ranked Highlanders (13-0) and couldn't quite climb out, falling 34-21 in a West Virginia Class AAA state semifinal before a throng of their supporters.
''As good teams do, and good kids do, they fought and got back in this thing,'' Park coach Chris Daugherty said. ''We made it exciting, but it just got away from us a little bit in the first half.
''But that's a credit to (Hungtington). They're a good football team. They were a lot faster and more physical on defense than maybe what we thought.''
So ends one of the greatest seasons is school history. With the finality came tears and frustration, which Daugherty said is actually a sign of promise.
''I know this hurts really bad,'' he told the team, ''but everything good in life hurts.
''It hurts because you put everything you had into it, and I will never forget this football team.''
The bottom line is, sometimes you run into a bigger, faster and stronger team. There's no shame in that, especially when you consider that only three teams - one in each class - will be able to say they are better than everyone else when the dust has settled late next Saturday night at Wheeling Island Stadium.
The hardest part of this ending will be the beginning that will happen next August. Wheeling Park loses a remarkable 27 seniors from this squad, many of whom will probably be showing up in all-state lists in the coming weeks.
''This group of kids started a standard here and we've now got to live up to it on a yearly basis,'' Daugherty said. ''It's up to our younger kids to carry it on.
''We're losing a lot of really nice kids - not just football players. We're losing some good people.''
Daugherty knows a little something about those kinds of individuals, because he is one. Search from one end of this state to the other, and you won't find a better human being.
The detractors will say Daugherty has never won the big one, and that's true. Sometimes, though, particularly when prep athletics is the topic of discussion, there really are bigger things than winning and losing.
Guys like Geremy Paige and Zach Phillips will be better men because of the influence of Daugherty and his coaching staff. So will Eric Banks, Matt Hackathorn and Eric McCave, just to name a few.
Sure, the Patriots won't be raising any hardware this season, but heads shouldn't be hung.
I know nobody wants to hear that right now, but in time the picture will become clearer. This group of Patriots captured the imagination of a city for the first time in decades.
That's something to be awfully proud of.
Now it's time for someone else to come along and hold the rope.
Shawn Rine can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org