Numerous changes in Hurricane-Winfield rivalry
It's only been a year since Hurricane and Winfield crossed paths, but so much has changed since then.
A lot of things will look different - including the head coaches - when the Putnam County rivals lock up at 7:30 Friday night at Redskin Stadium.
Hurricane embarks on its first season since 2004 without Willis May at the helm, as former assistant Jeremy Taylor takes over. May led the Redskins to six Class AAA playoff spots in his eight seasons as coach, thrice getting to the quarterfinals.
Not only did May take all that coaching acumen with him when he left for Florida, but he also took his son Corey, a budding receiver in the Redskins system. Corey May caught 35 passes last year, including 11 in a first-round playoff win against Elkins.
"He came on last year,'' Taylor said of Corey May. "I watched from the stands, and the longer the season went on, the better he got.''
Hurricane will be lacking at certain positions, especially along the line, where only one starter returns.
Taylor, however, has been able to get junior receiver Koi Turner ready for varsity play this year, along with getting athletes from other teams at the school to come out for football - including junior baseball player Zach Fitzsimmons, a receiving candidate, along with junior twin brothers and wrestlers Jon and Jeremy Francis.
"I got a ton of wrestlers,'' Taylor said, "and it's nice to have those guys, like the Francis brothers. One will probably start in the secondary and the other's a lineman. They're tough as nails. You like having [wrestlers] at linebacker because you know they're not afraid of anything.''
Balance among the skill position players has long been the byword at Hurricane, which saw four different running backs gain more than 100 yards in a game last season.
In that game, Andy Ellington booted four field goals, giving him a state-record 14 for the season, and running back David Gaydosz ran for more than 200 yards, putting him over 1,000 for the season and making him the first player at Winfield to reach that plateau since at least the 1980s (the school does not have complete records).
But all it got the Generals was another loss to close out a 4-6 season. Shortly after, coach Willie Wilson stepped down after five years. Gaydosz then transferred to Cabell Midland.
"Certainly, that was a weird taste in our mouth at the end of the year, the way that all went down,'' said Craig Snyder, a former Generals assistant who has taken over as head coach. "Because everyone after the game was happy, and we just got destroyed. It was very misleading the way it all went down.
"We went 4-6 last year, beating two 0-10 teams [Nitro and Tolsia] and Ripley and St. Albans. Those four teams won five games. That was the most misleading almost-.500 record you can see.''
Both the coaches and players at Winfield realize they're battling a culture of losing, but are determined to get that mentality turned around.
"It's going to be a long process,'' said senior safety Alan Short. "We've been known as a team that can kind of be lazy at times, doesn't pursue the ball, not tough, kind of a weak team. But our numbers in the weight room have been great and we work hard day in and day out. We just have to be mentally tough.
"I have to keep my head straight on and off the field. I don't want to set a bad example for the younger guys as they're coming up through their high school years. It's the time of their life, and they don't want to mess things up because football has more of a meaning than just on the field. It sets examples all throughout life. It makes you a man.''
Both coaches, former longtime assistants, know full well what it means to tackle a regular-season schedule in the Mountain State Athletic Conference.
The MSAC parted ways this fall with a pair of programs that hadn't made the state playoffs since 1998 (Greenbrier East) or ever (Lincoln County). The 15-team combination that remains thus probably grows stronger.
"It's an old saying that anyone [in the league] can beat anyone,'' Taylor said, "but if I was the third-ranked team [in the playoff seedings], I wouldn't want to play the 14th-ranked team if it came out of the MSAC. I'd rather play one of those other schools that plays a lot of double-As and stuff like that.
"Even if you're [George Washington] and you're No. 1, you could be playing another MSAC school somewhere along the line. No. 8 could be Cabell Midland, maybe another MSAC team you've already played. We're in the toughest conference in the state without a doubt.
"As long as we do what we have to do, we'll win,'' he said. "We've got to have that mentality - that we will win. We'll find a way. If we do that, we'll be fine.''
"We have our work cut out for us,'' Snyder said. "One of the biggest differences these MSAC schools have is so many players, and they play more players. I'm thinking of playing more players, and potentially it can make a difference. It's something we're committed to doing, and I think it will make a difference.
"I just think there are challenges no matter what. We have the talent and the heart to be competitive. I don't see it as a negative. I teach in this community; this is my 17th year coaching in Winfield. I'm excited to have finally gotten the opportunity to lead the team. What you'll see in our locker room won't be a lot of flashy players. It'll be kids who are going to work hard and hopefully execute and be tough, and maybe in a little bit better shape than everyone else.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.