As the heartbreaking losses mounted, Mark Batton didn't doubt his team.
Talking playoffs after the regular season? Oh, the Magnolia coach did doubt that.
Doubt his team, however? Not a chance.
Jacob Brill and the Blue Eagles are on a roll.
Despite the close losses (15-14 to then No. 1 Williamstown and 11-9 to No. 2 St. Marys, both on late-second field goals and 27-20 to Wheeling Central when Magnolia was lining up for a game-winning field goal down 21-20) Batton believed in his team. That's playoffs. He'd been through that.
"After our third loss, to Wheeling Central (27-20 after the field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown) we knew we had to keep winning to get in," Batton said. "Then we had the heartbreaking loss to St. Mary's and at that point it was iffy if we were going to get in at all. But these kids kept battling and they never quit. They came out, had good practices and they played well."
The Blue Eagles (6-4) finished the season with a 24-0 victory against Ohio playoff qualifier Steubenville Catholic and then a 54-13 triumph against Class AA Oak Glen. They were rewarded with a No. 14 seed and a trip to Charleston to take on No. 3 Valley-Fayette at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Laidley Field.
You don't have to convince Greyhounds long-time coach Benny Hopkins about Magnolia.
"They very well could be at the top of this thing," Hopkins said of the Blue Eagles. "You look at the losses Magnolia has had and they were in every one of those games and could have won. They could be 10-0."
Valley is 10-0, for the first time in school history. Montgomery High finished 10-0 in 1969, eight years before Valley opened, and didn't make the playoffs. Only two teams advanced to the playoffs in those days and the Greyhounds finished third.
The teams boast some similarities, most notably they have hard-running tailbacks who ran for more than 1,000 yards.
Magnolia is led by returning all-stater Drew Keller, who has 1,420 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"He is what they go to and he is a good player," Hopkins said. "They've been lining him up in that wildcat formation, they line him up in the I. He's a hard runner to bring down once he gets going."
The wildcat was something Magnolia had tinkered with all season.
"We even talked about it at the beginning of the season," Batton said. "We started working with it about the middle of the season and we put it in a little bit against St. Marys. It really gives us variation, and Drew is a great player with the ball in his hands."
Hopkins knows the Blue Eagles aren't a one-man team, though.
"They have a real nice quarterback and some good receivers," Hopkins said. ''They can throw the football and they have a lot of weapons to they can throw at you."
Likewise, Valley has some weapons, and a lot of speed.
Keyshawn Payne leads the Greyhounds attack with 1,104 yards on 110 carries and 12 touchdowns.
"Payne is a nice runner," Batton said. "He really runs downhill well."
The emphasis for Batton is quarterback Raeshawn Breckenridge, who has 367 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. He has also completed 31 of 68 passes for 773 yards and four touchdowns.
"We is very elusive, we have to know where he is at all times," Batton said. "He does a good job running their offense."
Dru Bowen is the leading receiver with 16 receptions for 428 yards and three touchdowns.
Wilkerson also has five catches for 118 yards and a touchdown.
"Valley is an excellent football team," Batton said. "There is a reason they are 10-0 and No. 3 in the state."
Many think they could well be an underdog given Magnolia's staunch schedule and close losses to highly ranked team.
"We told our team that 10-0 doesn't mean anything," Hopkins said. "It's starting all over again Saturday and our kids have to show up and play well."
"Our record is what it is," Batton said. "We were fortunate enough to win and squeeze in there and now we have the opportunity to play. Hopefully we can take advantage of it."
The last time Valley and Magnolia played was in a scrimmage game in the early 1980s, when Hopkins was in his first years at Valley (he went from assistant to head coach in 1979) and Batton was an assistant under Dave Cisar.