HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Huntington's defense led the Highlanders to the Class AAA semifinals then carried them to the promised land.
Junior linebacker Stefan Gibbs returned an interception 8 yards to seal top-seeded Huntington's 34-21 victory over No. 5 Wheeling Park Saturday night. A crowd of about 2,000 attended the matchup at Bob Sang Stadium at Huntington High School.
Huntington (13-0), which is just five years removed from an 0-10 season, advances to next weekend's championship game against three-time defending state champion Martinsburg at Wheeling Island Stadium. Kickoff will be noon Saturday.
"It just pretty much proves what we do as a program,'' Huntington coach Billy Seals said of the program's turnaround. "I'm only as good as the guys underneath me. We've got great assistant coaches. Our kids have bought into the program and the system. I'm proud of them.''
The Highlanders jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the opening half, but Wheeling Park (11-2) stormed back after halftime to close within 27-21 on sophomore running back Savion Johnson's 2-yard touchdown run with 4:39 left in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots' defense forced Huntington to punt after stopping a ground game that racked up 361 yards. Highlanders sophomore punter David Gatrell pinned Park at its own 6-yard line with 44.9 seconds to go.
On the next play from scrimmage, Gibbs jumped the route and intercepted Patriots senior quarterback Zach Phillips at the 8 and breezed into the end zone to finally put away the pesky Patriots.
"I saw the quarterback and the ball,'' said Gibbs. "I just jumped right in front of that. It's unbelievable. We've got a lot of young guys on 'D'. We're just stepping up and making plays.''
"We take pride in our defense,'' added Seals. "We have 11 kids that want to get to the football every play.''
Huntington's defense harassed Park all night, limiting the Patriots to 194 total yards and just 60 rushing yards. The Highlanders came up with three interceptions and three sacks for minus-21 yards. The Patriots, though, scored the most points against the Highlanders this season. Huntington's previous high was 18 against St. Albans.
The Highlanders' defense stymied Park in the opening half, holding the Patriots to 6 total yards, including minus-7 yards on the ground, on 14 offensive plays.