WHEELING - If Huntington coach Billy Seals has a wish for Christmas, this would probably be it as his team prepares to meet Martinsburg in today's state Class AAA finals:
"Hopefully,'' he said, "we don't look like the kid who's at the prom for the first time, and they look like the kid who's been there four years in a row.''
Seals hopes the setting isn't bigger than his team's confidence level as the Highlanders make their first appearance in the championship game against the three-time defending champion Bulldogs. Kickoff is set for noon at Wheeling Island Stadium.
The unbeaten Highlanders (13-0), the Mountain State Athletic Conference champs and the No. 1 playoff seed, have never played in the state title game since consolidating with Huntington East in 1996.
Old Huntington High, the Pony Express, made the finals twice in 1964 and '66 and lost each time.
Seals, however, thinks his players are up to the challenge against Martinsburg (12-1), the No. 2 seed that has won 15 straight playoff games and 35 in a row against West Virginia opponents.
"So far this year,'' he said, "we've handled the big-stage games really well - Cabell Midland, Capital, South Charleston, George Washington and Wheeling Park. Those were all big-stage games in my opinion, and we've handled that pretty well.
"Obviously, Martinsburg is Martinsburg, but the stage does not bother us. That's not to say our kids are not very excited about the opportunity to play on a big stage, but you never know how kids are going to react until they get in that situation.''
Seals didn't have to look very far to see what a poor start can do to a team's playoff chances.
Capital, competing in its first playoff semifinal since 1999, gave up a long kickoff return to set up a Martinsburg touchdown right off the bat last week, then muffed its ensuing kickoff, giving the Bulldogs good field position and a quick 14-0 lead.
"We talked to our team about that,'' Seals said. "You look at the Capital game and with 9:30 left in the first quarter, it's 14-0. We can't afford for that to happen.''