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WV Prep football Preview: Can Anyone Step Up to Knock Off Martinsburg in Class AAA?

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It was going to be a strange season of Class AAA high school football in the state of West Virginia before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. Now, it feels like anything is possible.

When West Virginia high school football begins this week it will be without several Class AAA contenders on the schedule do to counties not making the cut on the state’s COVID-19 metric or in the case of four-time defending state champion Martinsburg a positive test by someone who was in contact with the team. Assuming the Bulldogs and others around the state are allowed to play games in the future let’s take a look at some of the preseason contenders to claim the 2020 Class AAA state championship.

MARTINSBURG

2019 record: 14-0, beat Cabell Midland 49-21 in Class AAA state championship game

The Bulldogs ride a 56-game win streak into the 2020 season — whenever that starts for them. Last week a positive COVID-19 test by someone who had been in contact with the team shut down practice for Martinsburg until September 5, wiping out a scheduled season opener on September 4 against Eastern Panhandle rival Musselman.

Martinsburg lost a lot from last season’s title team, including its head coach. Dave Walker led the Bulldogs to eight state championships and established himself as one of the great high school football coaches in state history during his time with Martinsburg, but left the prep game after the 2019 season to take the head coach job at Division II Concord University.

As for what MHS brings back this season, senior running back Naieem Kearney is expected to lead the offensive attack with two-way players such as seniors Kevon Warren, Anthony Smith and Doryn Smith expected to chip in on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs should again be among Class AAA’s elite teams, but it feels like the pack could be closer to Martinsburg than it has been in several years.

 

CABELL MIDLAND

2019 record: 13-1, lost 49-21 to Martinsburg in Class AAA state championship game

The Knights have been a safe bet for deep playoff runs for most of the last decade, with two state runner-up finishes in that time — both losses to Martinsburg, including last season when Midland had the powerhouse Bulldogs tied 14-14 at halftime in Wheeling before falling behind fast in the second half. Like the Bulldogs, Cabell Midland will have to wait an extra week to open its season after the COVID-19 metric put a hold on Kanawha County teams and wiped out the Knights’ September 4 game against Riverside.

Midland loses an all-time player in quarterback/defensive back J.J. Roberts — now a freshman cornerback at Wake Forest — from that team but the Knights have more than a few players still around that are capable of carrying the football. Isaiah Vaughn, Jayden Johnson and Jackson Fetty should each see their share of playing time for veteran coach and former Marshall standout Luke Salmons while fullback Jakob Caudill is back for his senior season after carrying the Knights at times in 2019 when other players were injured. Fetty and Johnson could also see time at quarterback after filling in for Roberts on occasion in 2019.

Following an unbeaten regular season and run to the Super Six, life does not get any easier for the defending Mountain State Athletic Conference champions. In addition to a conference schedule that includes games against Capital, Huntington and George Washington, the Knights are scheduled for a visit from Martinsburg and a trip to Parkersburg South, a team that surprised many with a run to the state semifinals in 2019. Midland does, however, avoid an MSAC clash with Spring Valley — the state powerhouse from neighboring Wayne County — this season.

 

GEORGE WASHINGTON

2019 record: 8-4, lost 28-18 to Cabell Midland in Class AAA state quarterfinals

The Patriots opened the 2019 season with two losses before rolling off eight wins in their next nine game to the surprise of many around the state. GW’s run came to an end in the state quarterfinals against MSAC rival Cabell Midland, but 2019’s result and roster gave many on “The Hill” lots to be optimistic about going into the 2020 season.

Steve Edwards, one of the state’s longest-tenured head coaches, has had some good teams at GW in recent seasons but the 2020 edition could be his best since current Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Switzer led the Patriots to the Class AAA state title game in 2011 and on another deep playoff run in 2012.

GW will feature one of the best quarterback-running back duos in the state with seniors R.T. Alexander and De’Anthony Wright back this season. Alexander, the son of former South Charleston and West Virginia University standout Robert Alexander, blossomed into one of the state’s top quarterbacks as a junior by leading the MSAC in passing while also tossing 26 touchdowns. Wright, who is also a linebacker, runs hard and has most of his offensive line returning for 2020 — which should force opposing defenses into accounting for the Patriots’ run game as well as Alexander and the passing game.

Like other Kanawha County schools, GW will not be permitted to play its season-opener this week at Jefferson. As it currently stands, the Patriots will open their season with consecutive road games at Hurricane and Huntington before returning home to host Musselman. After that it is back into the MSAC grind with tests against South Charleston, Cabell Midland, Parkersburg and Capital among others.

 

MUSSELMAN

2019 record: 9-3, lost 52-33 to Parkersburg South in Class AAA state quarterfinals

For as long as Martinsburg has been good — so for most of this century — the cry from around the state as the Bulldogs piled up wins was usually along the lines of, “Of course they win all these games, they don’t play anybody good in the Eastern Panhandle.”

Musselman in recent seasons has been out to reverse that line of thinking and could be close to a real breakthrough in 2020. Last season’s Applemen surprised many with a strong run before a loss to Martinsburg in the regular season-finale. They followed that with a first-round playoff walloping of Parkersburg before falling to eventual state semifinalist Parkersburg South in the quarterfinals.

Blake Hartman was a big part of the Applemen’s success last season, and the do-it-all senior is back to, well, do it all again. Hartman lined up all over the field on offense for Musselman last season and really forced opposing coaches to account for him on every play. The Applemen also have an experienced quarterback in Caleb Hardy and return most of their lines from last season as well.

 

SOUTH CHARLESTON

2019 record: 4-7, lost 47-13 to Parkersburg South in Class AAA first round

The Black Eagles became the rare team to sneak into the Class AAA playoffs last season with a 4-6 record before a first-round loss at Parkersburg South, but Donnie Mays’ Black Eagles were young at many key positions. Now, with a handful of upperclassmen leaders and battle-tested underclassmen SC could be primed for a return to the top of the MSAC standings and standing as one of the state’s elite football programs.

South Charleston is led by standout defensive end Zeiqui Lawton — a senior who has narrowed down his top five college choices to WVU, Boise State, Illinois, Cincinnati and Oregon — but the Black Eagles are more than just a one-man team. Quarterback Trey Dunn took his share of lumps as a freshman but returns for his sophomore campaign with lots of weapons at his disposal. Running back/linebacker Mondrell Dean — who received his first Division I offer over the weekend from Cincinnati — was among the top freshman in the state last season.

In addition to those names, most all of South Charleston contributors are back in 2020. SC, like all MSAC teams, faces a tough schedule this season made tougher by the addition of Martinsburg for a non-conference game in September.

 

SPRING VALLEY

2019 record: 11-3, lost 30-0 to Cabell Midland in Class AAA state semifinals

The Timberwolves have established themselves as one of the elite programs in the state, but 2019 ended on a sour note with a shutout loss to rival Cabell Midland in the state semifinals.

With all of the recent success Spring Valley has enjoyed, it might seem like the Timberwolves are due for a rebuilding year — but 2020 is not that year. Spring Valley is loaded with Division 1 talent along its offensive and defensive lines, led by WVU commit and one of the top high school offensive lineman anywhere in the country in Wyatt Milum. Fellow SV lineman Bryce Biggs is no slouch either with eight Division 1 scholarship offers at the moment, and junior tight end Corbin Pace is also starting to receive recruiting attention from top college programs.

Where the Timberwolves might look a little different in 2020 is quarterback play. Jack Roy, a 6-foot-5 senior transfer from Kentucky’s nearby Fairview High, will get the bulk of the snaps and might need some time to adjust to SV’s usual run-first offensive approach, but also gives the Timberwolves a threat to beat you through the air — something Spring Valley has been missing for much of its recent run of success.

OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH IN CLASS AAA

Capital, Huntington, Parkersburg South, Bridgeport, Hurricane, Wheeling Park, Morgantown

Coming Tuesday: Class AA preview

(photo via @CABELLFOOTBALL on Twitter)

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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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