A Perfect Knight For a Celebration: Wheeling Central Wins Class A State Championship

Wheeling Central’s Dawson Wear runs the ball as teammate Michael Runkle applies a block. Photo by Alex Kozlowski

WHEELING — First they almost lost their coach. Then, they started 0-2 and those rumblings got bigger and bigger. It was season where Wheeling Central had to scratch and claw just to get over a .500 record and into the playoffs.

There were a lot of doubters.

Consider them silenced.

Wheeling Central entered the playoffs as the No. 10 seed, but Saturday night the Maroon Knights proved they were No. 1.

Bray Price ran for 190 yards and two touchdowns to go along with an interception return for a score as Wheeling Central completed an impressive late-season run with a 40-21 victory against defending champion St. Marys at Wheeling Island Stadium to capture the West Virginia Class A state title — the school’s 10th state championship and first since 2011.

“This is just great for our kids, great for our families and great for Wheeling Central, I just can’t say enough,” Wheeling Central coach Mike Young said. “It was an emotional first half for our kids. I can’t say enough about the effort they played with in the first half with the emotions and the hype. It has been challenging to try and stay focused with young kids that aren’t used to the press and the media.

“When we came out, we weren’t sluggish but we weren’t in sync the way we should have been. The second half, people were frustrated but we regrouped and they pulled it together. Second half, we just dominated.”

After Wheeling Central had opened a 21-7 lead following two long Price touchdown runs (69, 74), St. Marys clawed back in with a 62-yard touchdown pass from Eric Illar to Dylan Gray and a 40-yard Jaiden Smith run (coming two plays after a Curtis McGhee III interception — his lone mistake of the night) to tie it before half.

The momentum might have sided with St. Marys, but you wouldn’t have guessed with the way Wheeling Central came out of the locker room.

The Maroon Knights used a methodical six-play, 70-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown run by Dawson Wear.

“This the best feeling in the world,” Wear said. “Growing up and thinking about this moment all my life, I don’t even know what to say.

“Everyone doubted us when we were 0-2 but we never stopped believing in ourselves. We all stepped up and made this a reality. This is all we wanted. We took this playoff run one game at a time. (The offensive line) is great. Then with (McGhee and Price), people can’t just focus on one of us. We all love sharing the ball with one another and we all love each other.”

Then came the play of the game — and season for Wheeling Central.

St. Marys’ first play from scrimmage in the first half resulted in a 41-yard touchdown run. The Blue Devils’ first play from scrimmage in the second half also went for a touchdowns — this time for the Maroon Knights.

Illar’s pass for Gray was too high and right into the hands of Price, who caught it in stride at the 28 and used his speed to race past the Red Devils 72 yards for a touchdown that put Wheeling Central up two scores and took the air out of St. Marys.

“From the jump we always thought we could be state champions, we just finally put it together,” Price said. “(On the interception), as soon as he threw it, I knew it was going to go over the top of (the reciever’s) head. I just caught it and used my speed to get into the end zone. I wanted just to play my game and not do anything too huge. If it is there, it is there and take it.”

It was just one of the mistakes that came back to haunt St. Marys. The other two came in two separate goal-to-go situations where the Blue Devils fumbled snaps on the third-and-goal from the 1 and were stuffed on the ensuing fourth-down play.

“You have to make the plays and the team that makes the most plays comes out on top,” St. Marys coach Jodi Mote said. “When you have a game like this where you have two good teams, you have to put the points on the board when you get the chance.

“Any type of turnover is big. The momentum changed unfortunately if you are on our side. It came down to execution and turnovers and you have to win those battles in tight ball games like this.”

McGhee sealed a victory with an 11-yard touchdown run with 2:56 left in the fourth and the celebration was on.

Wear rushed for 153 yards and a score, while McGhee had 71 yards rushing and two scores. Smith paced the Blue Devils with 128 yards and two scores, while Illar passed for 206 yards and a touchdown. Gray had 103 yards receiving and a touchdown.

“This team is resilient and they are very similar to the one I won the state title with in my first season,” Young said. “They were doubted and they battled back. This team is full of heart and soul. They are super, super kids. I have a great coaching staff and they did a tremendous job. All my coordinators and line coaches, position coaches. They had these kids ready every game.

“This is just tremendous for these young men and I am proud of them.”