Not that long ago, the Poca football program was the laughingstock of West Virginia high school football.
The Dots lost 39 consecutive games over the span of four years between 2013 and and 2017, but in the time since that long streak was snapped Poca has turned its program completely around under the watch of head coach Seth Ramsey.
The next step for the Dots is another Class AA state championship to add to their collection (six overall but none since 2003), and in 2020 Poca is loaded with the talent and experience to be firmly among the preseason favorites to lift the trophy at the end of the season in Wheeling.
Poca went unbeaten in the regular season in 2019 and after walloping North Marion in a first-round playoff game in Putnam County the Dots appeared ready to take that next step last season. An upset loss to visiting Oak Glen the following week derailed those plans, but the good news for Poca is most everyone from that team is back this season — including 2019 Kennedy Award winner Ethan Payne, a standout running back committed to Marshall.
All Payne did as a junior was run for 2,845 yards and 49 touchdowns to claim the state’s top individual award. Payne’s younger brother Toby emerged as a serious threat as a tight end in 2019 as a sophomore, and is starting to get some recruiting attention with scholarship offers from Marshall, Rutgers and Tennessee already in. The Dots will also have an experienced quarterback in senior Jay Cook.
Poca beefed up its schedule for 2020 with the addition of a season-opening game on Sept. 5 at three-time defending Class A state champion Wheeling Central Catholic and a visit from Class AAA Greenbrier East the following week.
The Dots, however, are far from the only contender in Class AA this season. Defending state champion Bridgeport was bumped up to Class AAA in the most recent round of WVSSAC reclassification, which means another team is going to have to step up to take the Indians’ place at the top in 2020. Let’s take a look at some of the other teams expected to contend for the state title:
2019 record: 12-1, lost 40-24 to Bluefield in Class AA state semifinals
The Polar Bears have been among Class AA’s elite programs for a while now, and that is not expected to change in 2020.
Fairmont Senior’s run of consecutive state title game appearances ended at three with last season’s semifinal loss at Bluefield, and this season’s team will have to deal with the loss of a big-time Division 1 talent, but that is nothing new for the 12th Street Bears. All-everything offensive and defensive lineman Zach Frazier is now playing football at WVU (along with fellow former Polar Bears Darius Stills, Dante Stills and Jake Abbott) while just one regular from last season’s offensive line is back, but Fairmont Senior has weapons at the skill positions that make the Polar Bears a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
Senior quarterback Gage Michael was very good in 2019 as a junior when he threw for 27 touchdowns and ran for another 22 scores, and senior running back Kieshawn Cottingham is expected to make big contributions.
2019 record: 13-2, lost 21-14 to Bridgeport in Class AA state championship game
Like Fairmont Senior, the Beavers have been among the best Class AA football programs in the state in recent years — the two swapped state championship game wins against each other in 2017 and 2018. Also like Fairmont Senior, Bluefield has been loaded with Division 1 talent and comes into 2020 trying to get back to the Super Six with new faces in many key places.
The Beavers have three running backs that will likely see carries in Jaeon Flack, Jacob Martin and Shawn Mitchell after losing standout J.J. Davis to graduation. Senior quarterback Carson Deeb is back after throwing 22 touchdowns against six interceptions as a junior while receivers Jacorian Green, Juwan Green and Brandon Wiley will be called on this season.
In addition to the loss of Davis to graduation, Bluefield also lost one of the top players in the country to transfer. Isaiah Johnson, an Arizona State commit considered one of the top cornerback recruits in the country, missed most of last season with an ankle injury before leaving the Beavers and moving to California over the summer.
2019 record: 12-1, lost 38-7 to Bridgeport in Class AA state semifinals
The Golden Bears posted a program-best 12 wins in 2019, including two playoff wins (one on the road — Poca’s only loss of the season) before bowing out to Bridgeport in the state semifinals.
Oak Glen has most of the key pieces from that team back — minus Carl Lee Award winner (given to the state’s top defensive back) Michael Lemley — and appears to be capable of rolling 2019’s unprecedented success into a strong 2020 showing.
Quarterback Nick Cheney returns as a three-year starter along with senior utility man Hunter Patterson and his 24 total touchdowns from a year ago. OG should also get contributions at running back from Gage Patterson and Paxton Shuman.
The Golden Bears’ schedule could be the most difficult in the state with trips to Point Pleasant (Sept. 4), Class AAA playoff regular Wheeling Park (Oct. 2) and Class AAA Spring Mills (Oct. 24) along with home tests against Keyser (Sept. 11) and Class AAA Northern Panhandle neighbors John Marshall (Sept. 18) and Brooke (Oct. 9).
2019 record: 9-3, lost 28-8 to Bridgeport in Class AA state quarterfinals
The Miners owned one of the state’s top offenses last season when they averaged more than 40 points per game. The bad news for Mingo Central is Drew Hatfield, who set state records for career receptions and receiving yards while winning the Randy Moss Award as the state’s top receiver, graduated.
The good news is quarterback Daylin Goad — who certainly hurt teams through the air last season but also possess the ability make things happen with his legs — is back after throwing for 3,446 yards and 30 touchdowns while also leading the team in rushing with 990 yards and 21 touchdowns. Senior receiver/defensive back Isa Scales, an honorable mention All-State selection by the state’s sportswriters last season, is expected to fill Hatfield’s role as the Miners’ top receiver, with Devin Hatfield (Drew’s younger brother) also expected to see his role in the offense increase.
This season will be Mingo Central’s first since leaving the Cardinal Conference, which means the Miners’ schedule will look much different than most seasons. Mingo’s first game was supposed to be at Wyoming Eat, but because the Miners have been away from practice due to a positive COVID-19 test by someone near the program that game has been called off. Instead, they will open at Point Pleasant next week before a home game against Class A Man. It doesn’t get any easier from there, in fact it likely will get much more difficult for the Miners with a trip to former Cardinal Conference rival Poca and a Senior Night clash with Bluefield on Miner Mountain.
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH IN CLASS AA
Keyser, North Marion, Shady Spring, Frankfort, Point Pleasant
Coming Wednesday: Class A preview