'How he does it, I'm not sure'
Disappointment and frustration are just about the only things Ethan Clark has known in his football career at Nitro.
A knee injury that wiped out his sophomore season just as it was about to begin. A collarbone injury that cut short his junior year after just four games. And through it all, a long losing streak that's now reached 18 games, currently second longest in the state.
But those misfortunes and defeats haven't proven contagious for Clark. Because this year, he's been busy catching everything else thrown his way.
Clark, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior wideout, leads the Mountain State Athletic Conference in receiving, hauling in 26 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns. He's caught at least seven passes in each of Nitro's three games and has also gone over the 100-yard mark in all three.
He continues to excel despite the fact that opposing defenses realize Wildcats coach Derek Midkiff and quarterback Chris Moody are doing their best to get him the ball.
"How he does it, I'm not quite sure,'' said Midkiff, Nitro's first-year coach, "other than the fact he's a great athlete. Without a doubt, he's our No. 1 guy we go to. We see all kinds of defenses geared toward him because he's our biggest weapon.
"As a matter of fact, in the Hurricane game they had three guys covering him on numerous occasions, and he was still catching the football. He finds ways to get open. He's just a remarkable talent and competitor. He doesn't believe he can be covered - ever. And I tend to agree with him. We do our best to get him the ball - and we have to be more creative now than ever to get him the ball because he has a chance to make something happen when he does have it.''
Clark's development as a receiver is even more impressive due to the fact he's missed so much time with injuries and last year's experiment that had him playing quarterback a great deal of the time.
So between his freshman and senior seasons, he managed to squeeze in just four games, and not a whole lot of reps at wideout. Still, it hasn't seemed to slow him down.
"Not at all,'' Clark said. "I think every game could be my last, so I give it my all.''
Clark credits his work with assistant coach Chris Fulmer - a former record-setting receiver at Nitro - as a big boost to his production.
Midkiff said Nitro's coaches realized Clark was a weapon when he caught 20 balls for 274 yards and two TDs as a freshman, and nothing has changed since then other than the time missed by injury.
"We knew we had him a little out of position last year by necessity,'' Midkiff said. "This year, we're committed to put him out in space and let him play the position he has a chance to play in college at slot receiver, and it's been a success so far.''
A success in the stat books, to be sure. But not on the scoreboard.
Now that Tolsia broke its three-year losing run at 19 games, Nitro inherits the state's second-longest streak behind Mount View's 30.
Clark catches the significance of that, too.
"It's real frustrating,'' he said, "because we know we have the talent to do it. We've got to have the heart to go out and know we can win. I feel like over the past year we haven't always done that, and we need to fix it.''
Clark has experienced success in his other sports. He plays outfield on Nitro's baseball team, which has reached the Class AAA state tournament six straight times. Last winter he was the No. 2 scorer on the basketball team, whose 12-12 record marked the program's first non-losing season since 2008.
Football, however, hasn't kept up, and Clark hasn't accepted the losing that's followed, even if he's been able to hold up his end of the bargain.
"Honestly,'' he said, "I really don't care how many yards I get. We need to get wins to get to the next level, and that's what we've got to do.''
Another injury, this time a tweak to his ankle during the preseason, has nagged Clark for a few weeks, but he's grown accustomed to dealing with adversity and bouncing back. Through all the discouraging days, he said it's still been worth it.
"A lot of people would [wonder about that],'' Clark said. "But sports is my life. It's what I need to go to college. My grades are good, but sports - and definitely football - will get me where I need to be.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.