West Liberty Opens at Urbana on Thursday
Toppers go for fifth straight victory over the Blue Knights
WEST LIBERTY — After a month of banging heads with each other, the West Liberty University football team will finally get a chance to hit someone in a different colored jersey Thursday when the Hilltoppers kick off the 2018 season at Urbana.
The game is set for a 7 p.m. start under the lights at Urbana University Stadium.
Thursday’s game is a rematch of last year’s season opener which saw West Liberty hang on for a 24-21 victory against the Blue Knights at West Family Stadium. That was the fourth straight win for the Hilltoppers in the young series but Waialae knows pushing that streak to five in a row won’t be an easy task.
“Urbana is a much better football team now than they were in Week 1 last year,” Waialae said. “They bounced back from that loss and had some really nice wins coming down the stretch. Defensively, they bring back all of their top players from a year ago.
“Offensively, they have three or four starting linemen returning who have played a lot of football to go along with a quarterback who throws the ball very well and a transfer running back who beat out last year’s starter, according to their 2-deep. They’re a pretty talented football team. We’re going to have to play well on Thursday to come home with a win.”
West Liberty also returns plenty of veterans on both sides of the football. The Hilltoppers have four returning starters on their offensive line — seniors Austin Yackey, Austin Whipkey and Zeke May along with junior Chance Rucker — with true freshman Tyler Ely muscling his way into a starting assignment at left tackle after an impressive preseason camp.
A deep and talented stable of running backs led by the senior tandem of Charles Westbrook and converted WR Osman Kargbo should be complemented nicely by a rangy receiving corps headed by seniors Mike McLean and Shane Phillips along with returning sophomore starter Isaiah Robinson. The tight ends/H-backs are also a strength with sophomores Ridge Durbin, Kyle Ritz and Chalmer Moffett along with transfer Nate Swart.
After a highly competitive battle throughout the preseason, look for Gannon junior transfer and former Wheeling Park standout Zach Phillips to take the opening snaps at quarterback but don’t be surprised to see returning seniors Brenton Colabella and Lukas O’Connor also getting some opportunities.
“The combination of their maturity as individuals and the competition throughout camp helped each of them lift their games,” Waialae said. “Colabella and O’Connor are noticeably better than they were last year and Phillips has made strides since the spring. It’s all about making quality decisions.
“Each guy brings a little different skill set to the table so we’ll set the starter based on the best fit for that week’s game plan but what we learned this month is that we can win with any of these three guys.”
Senior All-America LB Cliff Clark and two-time All-MEC safety Logan Deri lead the way on a West Liberty defense that has impressed with its playmaking ability throughout the preseason. Junior DT Cody Rine anchors a revamped defensive front featuring a good combination of youth and experience. Redshirt freshman DE Trevor Hoosier and sophomore DE Cody Enrietti were August standouts.
Clark will be joined at linebacker by impressive junior letterman Zahir Hicks with transfer Clay McDonald also expected to see plenty of action. Josh Ojo is a returning starter at one corner with converted WR Jaquan McCullough on the other side backed by a horde of quality ballhawks. Deri heads up a three-headed safety monster that includes junior Brandon Morrison and senior vet Brandon Gaither with junior two-year letterman Lherry Fontilisse capable of filling in at any of the five spots in the secondary. Also in the rotation are juniors Nate Salomon and Dionzae Foote along with true freshman Jalin Phillips.
One thing that doesn’t concern Waialae is playing under the lights. The Hilltoppers are 4-3 in their last seven Thursday night encounters.
“Knock on wood but some of our best practices over the years have been at night,” Waialae said. “Even though it was the first day of classes with all the challenges that usually creates, we had another really good practice on Monday.
“That’s the benefit of having lights because it lets us practice with a full team. Due to class schedules this year, we have to practice at night on Mondays and Wednesdays just to get everybody here but we’ll be ready to go on Thursday.”