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High School Football Semifinals Preview: Map Could Decide Finalists, Champs

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Sophomore Mondrell Dean and No. 2 South Charleston host No. 3 Mussleman in the Class AAA semifinals (Tom Bragg/WVSN)

Musselman and South Charleston are both no strangers to jumping through COVID map hoops in order to get on the field and play games this season, and they will both be waiting once again for Saturday’s state department of education map update to see if Berkeley County’s status improves and the Class AAA No. 3 Applemen will be allowed to visit the No. 2 Black Eagles on Sunday at 5 p.m. for a spot in next week’s big-school state championship game.

If Berkeley County improves on Saturday’s map, it will give the green-light to a clash of two of the state’s best teams on both sides of the ball with standout players up and down both rosters.

Musselman opened its playoff run two weeks ago with a blowout win against visiting University before advancing past No. 6 Spring Valley via forfeit when Wayne County schools were wiped out of the playoffs by last week’s map. The Applemen were able to move on to the semifinals while fellow Berkeley County schools Martinsburg and Spring Mills saw their season’s end due to the county dropping into “red” map category. With the opponents for the Bulldogs and Cardinals both good to go according to the map, Martinsburg and Spring Mills were eliminated while Musselman moved on.

No matter how it got to this point, there is no denying the Applemen have been one of the state’s top teams this season and feature perhaps the state’s top player in senior Blake Hartman. A four-year starter who is committed to Lehigh (with preferred walk-on offers from both West Virginia and Cincinnati), Hartman has done a little bit of everything for Musselman. On offense, Hartman is a running back who coach Brian Thomas is not afraid to line up behind the center for direct snaps on occasion, but no matter where he lines up he has been successful. How successful? Hartman recently broke the state’s all-time scoring record of 714 points previously held by Nitro High’s 2005 Kennedy Award winner Josh Culbertson.

“He just has that unique ability — he’s got speed and he can pull away. In our state, the fastest team is probably Martinsburg, and he had the ability this year to pull away from their guys and break some long runs,” Thomas told WVSN. “Then he has the unique ability of the power. He’s almost really like a fullback because he can run you over and lower that shoulder and he’s so strong — and a lot of that is his weight room work. It is a little bit of everything from a high school athlete. He’s got the speed, he’s got the strength. He’s got vision to where he can see things.”

Hartman has been a key part of the Musselman defense as kind of a safety/linebacker hybrid as well, with the Applemen allowing an average of 13.6 points per game over the eight games played on the field (not counting last week’s forfeit win against Spring Valley) while holding five of those eight opponents below 10 points.

“[Hartman] just has the ability to do just a little bit of everything,” Thomas said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever coached a player that has been good at so many things. He can return kicks and he has thrown touchdowns for us.”

There was considerable preseason buzz that South Charleston’s defense could be as good as the Black Eagles have put on the field in quite some time this season, but the big question mark about SC was, could its offense score enough points and avoid mistakes to put the program back among the state’s elite. The defense has certainly lived up to the hype led by star defensive end and Cincinnati commit Zeiqui Lawton and now, with a spot in a rare Charleston appearance for the Super Six on the line, we know that not only have the Black Eagles been up to the task on offense but they have developed into one of the most well-rounded, high-powered attacks in the state.

In addition to clearing the way for the solid SC running game led by sophomore Mondrell Dean, the offensive line has been providing standout sophomore quarterback Trey Dunn with plenty of time to operate the passing game with big-play senior receivers Shyleik Kinney and Donavin Davis helping to make life easier for the young quarterback.

Dunn has completed 106 of 156 pass attempts this season according to statistics made available by MaxPreps, while throwing for 23 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. Dean leads SC in rushing with 393 yards on 59 carries while freshman Amellio Miller has emerged as a threat out of the backfield with 306 yards on 40 carries — including two touchdowns in last week’s state quarterfinal win against Princeton.

“I kind of compare [South Charleston] to Martinsburg a little bit just from the fact that Martinsburg always puts out four receivers that are really athletic kids that have the ability to take the thing to the house at any time, and they’re kind of the same,” Thomas said. “They have four receivers that are good, then they play two running backs and both of those kids are good, and the quarterback is good. If you don’t play well against a team like that, they can score on any play.”

Let’s take a look around the state at the rest of the semifinal schedule:

CLASS AAA

  • No. 5 Bridgeport at No. 1 Cabell Midland*, 3 p.m. Sunday (Cabell County orange): The top-rated Knights have not played a single down of playoff football so far this season with forfeit wins in both the first and quarterfinal rounds, but it could be them that is eliminated by the COVID map this week. Bridgeport beat Washington 55-7 two weeks ago in the first round but won via forfeit against Martinsburg last week. Both teams love to run the ball and have plenty of options among capable players. For Bridgeport, that falls to Cam Cole, Hayden Moore and J.T. Muller in the Indians’ new single-wing attack. Midland will counter with an option game led by quarterback Jaydyn Johnson, fullback Jakob Caudill and running back Isaiah Vaughn.

CLASS AA

  • No. 8 Robert C. Byrd at No. 5 Oak Glen*, 5 p.m. Sunday (Hancock County orange): The Golden Bears are in danger of a map forfeit in this one, halting their season one game short of the Super Six. Neither Oak Glen — which opened in 1963 — or Robert C. Byrd — a consolidation of Washington-Irving and Roosevelt-Wilson high schools that opened in 1995 — has ever played in the state championship game. If they get to play, it will be a clash of standout players with Oak Glen’s Hunter Patterson and RCB’s Jeremiah King among the state’s best.
  • No. 6 Fairmont Senior at No. 2 Bluefield, 4 p.m. Saturday: Another chapter in this blooming postseason rivalry will be written Saturday at Bluefield’s Mitchell Stadium, with the Polar Bears and Beavers meeting in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and all four of those games coming either in the semifinal round or championship game. Fairmont Senior senior quarterback Gage Michael, a Kent State commit, has been outstanding again for the Polar Bears this season. Bluefield has a pretty good quarterback of its own in Carson Deeb, and if they play this shapes up to be another classic in this series.

CLASS A

  • No. 8 Pendleton County at No. 4 St. Marys, 1:30 p.m. Saturday: Ritchie County got to bypass the semifinal round thanks to COVID forfeits on its side of the bracket, but the Rebels’ status on next week’s map looks unfavorable — which means Saturday’s game between Pendleton County and St. Marys in Pleasants County could determine the 2020 small-school state champion. The Wildcats got here with an emphatic 41-17 win against No. 16 Tygarts Valley in last week’s quarterfinal round, led by a six-touchdown performance from Dalton Dunkle. On the other side of the bracket, St. Marys outlasted 52-49 in a shootout to get back to the state semifinals as the Blue Devils aim for their first Super Six appearance since 2017 and their first Class A title since 2016.
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Tom has spent the last decade as a sports journalist based in West Virginia, most recently as the WVU beat writer for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and with previous stops at the Charleston Daily Mail, the (Fairmont) Times West Virginian and the Daily Independent in Ashland, Kentucky. He was born and raised in Cross Lanes, West Virginia -- where he currently resides -- and is a 2010 graduate of the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Marshall University.

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