Panhandle Region Preview Part One
With the season rapidly approaching, Coalfields and Co. will be putting out an eight part series (four regions- two parts each) to preview the upcoming season. From the top teams to the dark horses that are looking to break into the playoffs, we will attempt to cover mostly every team that the Mountain State has to offer. In our series, we divided the state into four regions. Covering each corner of the state and letting you know about players and stories that you need to keep an eye out during the 2017 season. Without further to do, here is part seven, the Panhandle Region.
The Panhandle Region is an afterthought of the state which is messed up considering the Panhandle is what gives West Virginia its unique shape. It is a growing area full of new schools bursting at the seams. Quality programs in all divisions reside here including some of the largest schools in the state. This is West Virginia football too and they have just as much bite as the other regions. Not too mention their usual homefield advantage to out of region teams who have to make long drives. It’s a dangerous region full of athletes and probable title winners.
The Mystery of the Rest
For the past decade or so it has been Martinsburg… then everyone else. However, an interesting observation as the ‘rest’ usually hold very talented teams that compete at high levels. The fastest growing region in the state has a small conference, but it is quality football. Last season, Jefferson knocked off the #3 team in the state (nearby Musselman) in the first round. Hedgesville surprised everyone and made the AAA playoffs after years of being a cellar dweller; they are becoming a team that can be in the same conversation as Jefferson and Musselman. A team establishing itself as an annual playoff contender is the freshly built Spring Mills who have made postseason appearance in 2015 and 2016.
Being from the far side of the state and in a land which is more recognized as Maryland, these teams are typically unknown to the rest of the state. Yet the talent that they have almost always lives up when they go cross state. Some names to remember are Jacob Northcraft, a big boned back from Mussleman. He is preseason first team all-state which is understandable considering he dropped 1600+ rushing yards in 2016. Another impressive player comes in small school East Hardy- Brett Tharp, a tall wideout was such a handful to cover last season. Tharp led East Hardy to a close loss in the Single A State Championship. The Panhandle homes several high-quality defenders: Hedgesville has a dynamic duo that is key for postseason player (Gavin Smoot and N’iyjere Smith). Combo defender Jace Bradbury from Washington and linebacker Nich Longerbeam out of Jefferson.
The issue with many of these teams is that they haven’t taken the next step in the state playoffs. Musselman got slaughtered in the first-round last year by Jefferson, and Jefferson tends to struggle against teams from other parts in the state. Musselman does have a few feathers in the cap with a big win over Capital a few years ago at Laidley. They haven’t made that next step to put them into the conversation as a contender quite yet. Jefferson seemed like they were close to doing that but took a step back the past season or two. Spring Mills is a very young program and still trying to find traction. To gain as much ground as they have in such a short period of time is impressive to say the least. Hedgesville could be a team that is building fast. They have speed which has been shown at the state track meet, and they are starting to have belief. They played well last year at times and return a good amount of talent. A far way still from state contenders but they’ll be interesting to watch.
The Gold in the Tornado
Not sure if the hype train can be any higher for the Golden Tornado this season. Many have put Keyser at their number two or three position in the pre-season rankings, and many consider them to be a favorite for the AA playoffs . Brady Ours is the key player for the Golden Tornado, relying on him to be the player that will take over and win games for them. Ours is a transcendent defender and personal favorite to watch. The question mark has always been their pass defense, as it seems like it comes to haunt them each season when the playoffs roll around. Whether it was last season when Mingo Central came around or the year before when they lost in a shootout to Fairmont Senior. Those problems are almost guaranteed to be addressed by this point.
Their schedule isn’t favorable for them, however, an early season matchup with border foe Fort Hill (MD) will give us a glance to see if they are for real or not. Games with Jefferson, Bridgeport, Hampshire, and Allegheny (MD) will be difficult matchups as well. Winning two or three of those four will be a large step in the right direction for them. The surprising game is the long trip from Keyser to Man, that will be tougher than what people might look at first glance because of the distance between the two schools. That trip is a minimum of 5 hours and on a school bus nonetheless. Throw in a game with Weir, and the Golden Tornado have a heck of a schedule on their hands.
I believe AA would be better if Keyser made that next step. They are due for a big run and a title to hang in their school. It’s going to be a tough road and one that could beat them up before they even reach the state playoffs. They have the players, the coaches, and the experience to make the run that we all sort of expect from them this upcoming year. The biggest question is will they get the monkey off their back against other big time programs in Double A and make that run to Wheeling Island. In our discussions as a group, we felt confident that it could happen but that question still lingers.
The Kings of the North
Kings of the North might not pay full respect to the domination Martinsburg has put forth. Kings of the State might be more fitting. Five of the last seven AAA state championships have been won by the Bulldogs- absolutely unprecedented. Everyone is probably tired of listening to it, including Martinsburg as well, their program is based entirely on doing your job and not buying into the hype. So, what separates Martinsburg from the rest? What has allowed them to only lose to another West Virginia school twice this decade?
Some will say they have a talent pool like no other. Some will say their coaches are masterminds. Some will say their resources and system is exquisite. Why can’t it be all three? Many should look to Martinsburg on how to build in a talented area. Schools all around the state are placed in historically excellent areas of athletics but fail to develop like they should. I think it is a testament to the feeder schools and staff of the high school to make sure players are pushed to their highest potential. That is a train that is hard to stop when it gets rolling.
The Bulldogs had over a handful of all staters last season… and they’re mostly all back with the exclusion of transfer Isaac Brown. Tyson Bagent, a dominate QB, apparently hit a growth spurt and is now 6’3 (of course). Mikey Jackson is a top running back in the state and his tag team partner is DeWayne Grantham (who was recently offered by WVU). Those two also play defense at a next level caliber. However, the Bulldogs possess most likely the best defensive line in the state with Trey Henry, Jalen Hesen, and reigning Huff Award winner and D1 bound Tavis Lee. If you even get past the front line or try to throw, Grant Harman, a top five defender in the state, plays safety. Believe the hype. Martinsburg is legit. This might be the best they have ever been.
The Pandhandle Region has the least amount of schools on our map so we’ve allowed it to reach into the state. Yes, we know Upshur County isn’t in the panhandle… however, Nate Tolliver would like to get the Buccaneers past the first round and a higher seed. Last year after a good season they were swamped by Spring Valley. After a seemingly average regular season, Pocahontas County narrowly fell to a dominate Cameron team in the first round, is this a sign for things to come? Pendelton County rose up out of the woodworks to make it to the state semifinals in Single A- they finished 8-2 last season, hopefully they will place even higher going into the tourney. Webster County and Petersburg are the only other area teams who went above .500 (both at 6-4) and look to get enough quality points to slide in their division. On the other side of things, both Philip Barbour and Washington won not one single game last season. Will they get fewer than a combined 20 losses? Tygarts Valley at least won one. Five programs linger around below average and would at least like to win as many as they lose this season: Hampshire, Frankfort, Moorefield, Berkeley Springs, and Tucker County. However, do any of these teams really stand a chance to the Dogs?
Hedgesville @ Musselman (October 6) – A big game for the Eagles as they are attempting to establish themselves into the group of teams to watch out for in the panhandle. Coming a week before playing Martinsburg, this will become a key game in their playoff push. Musselman has a good squad this year and will need to continue winning games and getting points to put them into good position for the playoffs.
Musselman @ Jefferson (September 8) – Coming off the pounding they took in the playoffs last season that shocked many people around the state. Musselman looks to reclaim bragging rights from Jefferson. The Cougars are looking to rebound from a 5-5 campaign and this game will tell us a lot about who they are.
Hampshire @ Spring Mills (September 8) – These two programs fall into similar categories. Tend to always be on the fringe of the playoffs but no one knows a ton about them. For two schools who are on that line, they need as many points as possible to get in. This will be a big game for both of them if they are looking to get in.
Keyser @ Bridgeport (October 20) – We went with this one specifically because for them to make the next step in Double A, they need to knock off Bridgeport. Have they done it in the past, yes, but it’s different right now. Bridgeport is still the top dog in the division and has been for years. If Keyser wants to become the top dog they need to beat the top dog.