Looking up around the Bend
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If this keeps up, good things could be right around the bend for two Bend Area football teams.
Point Pleasant and Wahama, Mason County neighbors and residents along the big bend of the Ohio River, have both zoomed out of the gates and are well on their way to capturing another pair of playoff berths.
The Big Blacks (6-0), in just their second year back in the Class AAA ranks, are No. 3 in the playoff rankings and the White Falcons (6-1), fresh off the school's first-ever football championship, hold down the No. 10 spot in ultra-competitive Class A.
Wahama's lone loss came early to Ohio Division VII power Glouster Trimble (7-0) by a 12-7 count, but it has rebounded to win five straight. Point, meanwhile, is coming off a 49-15 conquest of previously unbeaten Oak Hill.
Both programs are familiar with postseason success - the White Falcons have reached the Super Six state finals in Wheeling twice since 2010 and the Big Blacks lost to Wayne in the AA title game in 2011.
Point has ridden a denying defense during its swift start, allowing just 71 points in six games, second in AAA only to top-ranked Huntington (6-0, 38 points allowed).
Before last week's game against Oak Hill and running back Jalen Jones, a top Kennedy Award candidate, the Big Blacks had permitted a total of just 225 rushing yards on the season. Oak Hill managed 190, but Point kept Jones out of the end zone and held the Red Devils almost 30 points under their pregame average of 44.
"We're really pleased with our defense,'' said Point Pleasant coach David Darst. "We've been solid on defense all year. And we've needed it, too, because we're young offensively. We only start one senior on offense.''
That senior is pretty good, by the way - running back Chase Walton (5-foot-10, 195 pounds) leads the team in scoring (12 touchdowns) and receiving (11 catches, 258 yards, four TDs) and stands second in rushing (447 yards, eight TDs).
Walton is two TDs shy of breaking the school's career scoring record set in 1954 by Paul Bennett.
"He's Mr. Everything here for us,'' Darst said of Walton. "He holds about every record here at Point Pleasant. He's having an outstanding year.''
Sophomore Cody Mitchell (6-3, 211) is the team's other top weapon at running back with a team-high 804 yards rushing with 10 TDs. Junior quarterback Aden Yates (6-2, 182) has been highly accurate, completing 72.5 percent of his career passes with 27 TDs against only four interceptions.
Some of the ringleaders for the Big Blacks' defense, Darst said, are sophomore linebacker Cody McDaniel (5-9, 190), junior defensive ends Jon Peterson (6-2, 193) and Brian Gibbs (6-1, 179) and junior safety Gage Buskirk (5-6, 141).
One of Point's toughest tasks upon moving to AAA after several years as a double-A school was simply completing a 10-game schedule. In trying to find state opponents, the school is blocked to the south by the sprawling Mountain State Athletic Conference and to the north by the two-state Ohio Valley Athletic Conference.
Darst has been forced to go all over the map to get games, playing Brooke and Oak Glen from the Northern Panhandle, Oak Hill and Shady Spring from the greater Beckley area, Logan from the coalfields and Lewis County from the north central corridor.
"It's a lot harder than what everybody thinks it is to schedule games.'' Darst said. "Teams get locked into playing the last eight games of the year against teams in their conference, and that makes it difficult. People thought it would be simpler for us to schedule being in triple-A, but we found out it was harder. We were lucky to get eight triple-A schools.''
Wahama, located about 14 miles upriver from Point Pleasant, had its own surprise awaiting at midseason when 19th-year coach Ed Cromley abruptly resigned after six games. Cromley cited stress from the combination of his teaching and coaching duties, and was replaced by longtime defensive assistant Dave Barr.
Barr, who turns 48 in a few weeks, has been a head coach previously at Roane County and Hannan in West Virginia and Racine Southern and Reedsville Eastern in Ohio.
"So it's not like I haven't been in this position before,'' Barr said. "I was kind of hoping I might be in this position at Wahama some day, once [Cromley] decided he was done. But that day's come a little sooner than I expected. In the back of my mind I was thinking about how I would do things. I feel like I've prepared myself for it, and I'm really excited about the opportunity.''
Barr said he was "as surprised as everybody else was'' when Cromley made his decision to step down last week, and the White Falcons' new coach has discussed the situation with his players.
"We talked about how we weren't going to allow anything to be a distraction for us this season,'' Barr said. "What we need to be focused on is what we had control over and that was playing Federal Hocking [last week], and we had a very good week of practice.''
When a program reaches the pinnacle after years of trying, as the White Falcons did last fall in becoming just the second public school team in nine seasons to capture a Class A title, sometimes there's a natural letdown. But Barr doesn't see that in his squad.
"[The hunger] is there,'' Barr said. "I think these guys expected to be good, but I don't think they're overconfident. They know it's going to be tough to repeat, but hopefully they're up for the challenge.''
Most of the headlines have gone to senior running backs Kane Roush (5-10, 170) and Colton Neal (6-0, 190), each of whom is on pace to crack 1,000 yards rushing.
The speedy Roush has run for 872 yards and 13 TDs and caught 10 passes for an additional 257 yards and four scores. The bullish Neal has gained 611 yards on the ground with 11 TDs and grabbed four passes for 107 yards and two scores.
Barr said, however, that the team's offensive line deserves just as much credit for those solid numbers by the running backs.
The starters, who often flip-flop along the line, are all seniors - tackles Lane Sparks (6-0, 240) and Tyler Nutter (6-0, 250), guards Josh Haddox (5-8, 185) and Wesley Harrison (5-10, 180) and center Zack Killingsworth (5-8, 230).
Keys subs on the O-line who all play regularly are junior guard Brent Larck (5-10, 190) and sophomore tackles Jesse Hesson (5-11, 220) and Clayton Sines (6-0, 310).
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.