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GW-Martinsburg state's marquee matchup

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Six games dot the state schedule this weekend for the playoff semifinals, but you can argue that the biggest game takes place today in the Eastern Panhandle.

The star power will be out in full force when George Washington travels to Martinsburg for a Class AAA semifinal at Cobourn Field. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.

The No. 2-seeded Bulldogs (11-1) resume their quest to capture a third straight state championship, which hasn't been done in the AAA bracket since Charleston High pulled it off in 1968-70. They've won 39 of 40 games over the last three seasons and have taken 43 in a row at home.

Meanwhile, No. 3 GW (10-2) features the state's top attraction in senior running back and North Carolina recruit Ryan Switzer, last year's Kennedy Award winner and the odds-on favorite to capture the honor again this season.

It's also a rematch of last year's state finals, an exciting affair in which Martinsburg trailed twice before holding on to post a 35-27 victory at Wheeling Island Stadium.

"We're kind of familiar with them,'' Switzer said, "because we played them last year, and they're kind of similar to us. They've got a lot of great athletes. We're going to have to tackle in space - I know that - which is what we didn't do last year. Maybe some of the breaks we didn't get last year will happen this year, who knows?''

Each team rallies around a senior offensive leader. For GW, it's Switzer and for the Bulldogs, it's quarterback Justin "Cookie'' Clinton, who has stepped nicely into the role handled the last two years by all-stater Brandon Ashenfelter.

In fact, Clinton and Switzer have similar numbers across the board on offense despite playing different positions.

Clinton has accounted for 2,678 yards either rushing or passing this season, along with 33 touchdowns (17 rushing, 16 throwing). Switzer has racked up 2,439 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) with 35 TDs (31 of them on the ground).

"He's done a fantastic job,'' said Martinsburg coach Dave Walker of Clinton. "He throws the ball really well and runs really well. He's been a big part of what we're doing.

"He was our [junior varsity] quarterback as a sophomore, and we knew he had the potential to be pretty good. He played there as a freshman on the ninth-grade team, too, so there's only been one year he didn't play full-time at quarterback, when he was a receiver last year.''

Each team sports a pair of Division I recruits. Martinsburg boasts of receiver Cedric Brown, who's headed to Ohio University, and lineman Eugene German, bound for Charlotte, which is also the destination for GW linebacker Dustin Crouser, who is out following a midseason knee injury.

"We've got a couple guys who can run,'' Walker said, "but that being said, they're a great defensive football team and they've got a lot of speed. People are not able to get outside on them for a reason.

"Right now, my offensive philosophy it to try and take what they give us. We go into a game pretty much with the same game plan every week. Hopefully, we'll find a way to move the ball. They're solid up front and in the secondary and have played pretty good defense all year.''

Only five teams have scored more than two touchdowns in a game against George Washington, while Martinsburg has only three such games and has shut out four opponents. In fact, the Bulldogs have allowed just four TDs in seven games since their lone loss, a 36-33 setback at Westminster, Md., on Sept. 21.

Each side is used to playing in crucial games, too. For GW's senior class, this will mark the 11th playoff game over the last four seasons; for Martinsburg, it's postseason contest No. 13.

"We've played in a lot of big games ourselves through the summer,'' said GW coach Steve Edwards Jr., "and these kids have played in a lot of big games throughout their careers here at GW.

"We prepare like it's the next ballgame - we get ourselves ready. The hype of the game and the challenge of the game shouldn't and doesn't bother us. The kids have been through it. We've been preparing for this for a long time - going against a good, quality program at a quality place. We're looking forward to it.''

Walker, likewise, said he doesn't expect the moment to be too big for his players, who are chasing a mark of three straight titles that's stood for 42 years in West Virginia's largest class.

"That's not something we've really said to them as a team,'' Walker said. "We know they're aware of it. It's been mentioned before. Our approach has always been the opponent ahead, even though we've got a tough task ahead of us.

"GW was the preseason No. 1. Everyone penciled them in as state champs this year. We know how good a team they are, and they've got a lot of guys coming back. We've got our work cut out for us.''

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.


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