Needing a bounce-back victory to solidify its chances of earning a 2012 playoff berth, two-time defending West Virginia Class A champion Wheeling Central Catholic heads into the Southern coalfields this weekend for another stern test.
Coach Mike Young's Maroon Knights (4-3) ill go up against Class AA playoff hopeful Mingo Central (4-2) on the artificial turf at the Miners' new James H. ''Buck" Harless Stadium located just outside Delbarton.
Central's travel itinerary includes departing early Friday and stopping off in Charleston to practice at Laidley Field.
Kickoff on Saturday is at 1:30 p.m. The contest is the second of four regular-season ending road games for the Maroon Knights, who where blanked 14-0 by undefeated Shadyside last Friday night.
Although Wheeling Central will be facing the two-year old Mingo County school for the first time this weekend, they aren't exactly strangers. Merged in the Mingo Central consolidation were Matewan, Burch, Gilbert and Williamson, all of whom the Maroon Knights have lined up against in past years.
The most recent contest saw Central knock off Matewan during the 2010 playoffs in what was the final football game in school history for the Tigers. On the field during that tussle at Wheeling Island Stadium for Matewan was a then promising sophomore running back, Joe May, now the leading rusher rusher for the Miners.
Coaching Mingo Central is the veteran Yogi Kinder, another familiar face to the Maroon Knights' staff. Kinder had many successful years during his long tenure directing the football program at Matewan High School.
The 5-foot-8, 165-pound May not only is closing in on a 1,000-yard rushing season with four games to go for the Miners, he also has become an explosive weapon on special teams with two punts and one kickoff return for touchdowns.
May was limited to just 56 yards rushing in 23 carries during last week's 22-20 comeback victory over Tolsia. However, he plunged 1-yard for a touchdown during the first half and then ran in the two-point conversion during the fourth quarter that provided the game-winning points.
''Mingo has a heck of a back in the May kid," Young noted. ''They move him around in the backfield and he is a threat to break one at any time."
Senior Matt Lester (5-9, 190), stepping in to play quarterback following a season-ending injury to freshman starter Stevie Hammond, turned in a strong performance against Tolsia, completing 7 of 14 passes for 119 yards. His numbers could have been better but, according to game reports, he had at least four balls dropped by Mingo receivers.
The Miners also feature a stout defense that has played well with the exception of a 53-14 blowout loss to undefeated Class AA power Wayne County, which has been crushing everyone this season. Wayne, in fact, has scored 330 points in just six games, an average of 56 ppg.
Top players on the Mingo Central defense are junior tackle Drew Kirk (6-1, 224) and senior linebacker Garth Simpkins (6-0, 200).
Young was unable to hide his disappointment after the shutout loss to Shadyside even though the Maroon Knights came into the game banged up. ''We are better than what we played," he said.
''Just like what happened against Magnolia, turnovers and penalties really hurt us. We handed Shadyside one touchdown on a fumble and we had another one called back.''
Central found out the day before the game that standout junior tackle Jimmy Tankovits and secondary starter/kick returner Nate Bakaitis would have to sit out because of injuries. Their status for Saturday's game was undetermined early in the week, although Young was hopeful both would be able to play.
''The kids that stepped in and played last week, I was proud of them," the veteran Maroon Knights coach said. ''But there is a reason they are backup players and the others are starters."
Still, Young offered no excuses for the loss to the talented Tigers.
''Shadyside is very balanced and well-coached. They definitely outplayed us," he said.
Despite taking a physical pounding nearly every week, junior quarterback/running back C.J. Burch continues to be productive for the Maroon Knights. The 80 yards rushing he managed against the stout Shadyside defense boosted Burch's total for the season to 1,079 yards on 177 carries.
''Burch is our horse and we have to keep riding him," Young stressed. ''When you carry the football as much as we need him to do, he's going to take a lot of hits and play nicked up."
Young also pointed out that he doesn't consider the Maroon Knights in any peril as far as making the playoffs at this point.
''I'm always optimistic and positive. I have confidence in our kids and our coaching staff. We're still Wheeling Central. If we can avoid the crucial mistakes and penalties that have hurt us in all of our losses, we'll be fine," Young concluded.