BAKER - Wheeling Central was right where it wanted to be, hanging with host East Hardy and the Cougars' potent, fast-paced offense during Saturday's first round of the Class A playoffs.
The No. 10 Maroon Knights trailed 22-20 at halftime, and tied the score at 28-28 in the third quarter on quarterback C.J. Burch's fourth touchdown run of the day. But on an afternoon where offense ruled much of the day, East Hardy's defense stepped up when it needed it.
The seventh-ranked Cougars forced four second-half turnovers - all of which led directly to touchdowns - and East Hardy scored 32 unanswered points in a 60-34 victory.
"It's a tough one to swallow," Maroon Knights senior Braxton Nolte, who led Wheeling Central with five catches for 64 yards, said "We came out fired up and did pretty well. We fought hard the whole game. They were just the better team. They made plays when they had to make them, and we didn't make them at times."
Wheeling Central (7-4) struggled all afternoon to stop East Hardy's offensive attack, but the Maroon Knights were kept in the game early by the play of Burch.
The senior scored three of his four rushing touchdowns in the first half, the third on an 8-yard run that gave Wheeling Central a 20-14 lead with two minutes to play in the first half.
Burch finished the day with 247 yards on 33 carries, including a 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and also passed for 131 yards on 11 completions. Burch earned the respect of East Hardy's coaches and players with his performance.
"I was thoroughly impressed with him," Cougars coach Chad Williams said. "He took a beating and just kept getting back up and running it again. He's a tough kid."
Wheeling Central's 20-14 lead - the Maroon Knights' only lead of the game - lasted just 13 seconds. Cougars senior Levi Beck took the ensuing kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown to reclaim the lead for East Hardy.
While Burch was having a solid day on the ground, his counterpart, East Hardy quarterback Shawn Skovron, was having a field day against the Maroon Knights' secondary.
Skovron gashed Wheeling Central for 360 yards and five scores through the air, completing 18 of 26 passes. As if the gaudy passing numbers weren't enough, Skovron added 73 yards rushing and pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on the ground for good measure.
Saturday marked the fourth straight game in which East Hardy (10-1) had put up at least 58 points in a game.
"We've just come out on fire the last few games our offense is just clicking a little bit better every week," Williams said. "We're hot at the exact right time."
The Maroon Knights had a chance to retake the lead early in the second half as they marched down to the East Hardy 22-yard line, but Burch threw the first of three interceptions on a fourth-down attempt.
On the very next play, Skovron hit wide receiver Joshua Parker for an 88-yard touchdown strike to give East Hardy a 28-20 lead with 6:22 left in the third quarter.
After Burch's score tied the game at 28, Skovron and Parker hooked up again, this time for a 51-yard score to start a string of five consecutive touchdowns for the Cougars.
"(East Hardy got) a couple breaks that caused the momentum to change, and these are high school kids, so when the momentum changes all kinds of things can happen," Central coach Mike Young said. "We're disappointed, but the sun will come up (today) for us."
Parker was a popular target in the passing game for East Hardy, finishing with eight catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns. Parker also intercepted a pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown to give East Hardy a 48-28 lead with 6:21 to play in the fourth quarter.
Wheeling Central's John Nixon scored on a 2-yard run with 30 seconds remaining to set the final margin.
East Hardy will move on to face No. 2 Magnolia (10-1) next week in the second round of the playoffs.
Saturday's loss ends an otherwise successful season for the two-time defending state champion Maroon Knights.
"A lot of people counted us out, not even making the playoffs. We gave a great first half. I'm proud of our kids, proud of what they accomplished," Young said. "We were a little bit thin this year because of injuries, but we'll be back."