WHEELING — The Wheeling Central football team didn’t get the chance to earn its fourth straight state title last year due to COVID’s color map eliminating the defending champs from the playoffs.
This year the Maroon Knights will be looking to settle it on the field and they are hungry.
In fact, the Knights have 47 players out for the team this year, all wanting to earn a state championship ring.
“We have 47 kids out and that’s the most we’ve had in a number of years,” Wheeling Central coach Mike Young said. “I’m very pleased with that. We have good kids who are ready to play. They are good kids in terms of attitudes and wanting to get better everyday.
“We were disappointed with how the season ended last year. We were the defending state champions going for a fourth and we didn’t get to play. The color map hindered that opportunity for us and to reflect back on that too much is painful and negative energy. We’re going to move forward, stay positive and that’s the key to what we want to do this year. Everyday we want to prepare to perform and that’s our motto — prepare to perform. If we can stay with that theory, we won’t spend too much time on the negatives but we’ll move forward with the positives.”
Gone from last year’s squad are 13 seniors, including four first team all-staters and a second team all-stater.
Andrew Burkle (OL), Jordan Waterhouse (RB), Vinnie High (LB) and Payton Marling (Util) were all first teamers and Spencer Helms (OT) was a second teamer.
Burkle was a force on the line for Young’s squad, while Waterhouse ran for 1,005 yards and 13 touchdowns on 130 carries and was a threat to catch the ball, as well.
High delivered a team-high 79 tackles and 11 tackles for loss, while Marling supplied 55 tackles, eight for a loss and could make an impact on offense, too.
Despite those key losses, the Knights will be led into action this year by senior quarterback Michael Toepfer (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), who was an all-state honorable mention a year ago.
Coach Mike Young discusses the upcoming campaign
“It’s huge to have Micheal Toepfer back,” Young said. “His leadership — not just in his play but he demands it from his teammates and they respond well to him. Having that type of player on the field is like having a coach out there because he is an inspiration and a motivator.”
Junior Payton Hildebrand (5-10, 155) will serve as a reliable backup at quarterback, as well as freshmen Seth Cover (5-7, 170) and Trey Dunn (5-10, 150).
Toepfer will be joined in the backfield by another all-state honorable mention in junior running back Riley Watkins (5-9, 175).
“For an underclassman, Riley is not shy,” Young said. “He is going to be everything he can be and that’s what I want him to do. He’ll be the lead back in terms of leading guys down the field as far as kickout, isolations, our fill but he’ll also come out of the backfield as a receiver and running the ball.”
Other strong backs in the Knights’ arsenal include junior Lorenzo Ferrera (5-10, 165), senior Braxton Anderson (6-0, 180), sophomore Eli Tucker (5-10, 155), senior Cole O’Neil (6-2, 205), Riley Watkins’ twin brother Parker Watkins (6-0, 185), seniors Andrew Johnson (5-11, 180) and Cody Martos (5-9, 180) and freshman Ty Wheeler (5-7, 135).
“I look out there and see kids like Cody Martos, Andrew Johnson and Parker Watkins — we’re looking for these kids to come through, step up and be a part of Wheeling Central’s tradition,” Young said. “Johnson could be a tight end, fullback or outside linebacker, while Parker could be in the mix with the defense. We’re looking forward to these kids getting better and playing hard.”
Running lanes for those backs will be opened up by an offensive line that has Young excited heading into the 2021 campaign.
“Braxton Anderson, Lorenzo Ferrera, along with Riley Watkins being a hard, power runner in the backfield — if we can execute our offense up front with a good, somewhat veteran line, we should be pretty solid,” Young said. “(Junior) Deante Suggs (6-1, 250), (junior) Andrew Hartzell (5-10, 205), (senior) Ben Foster (6-1, 290), (junior) Braden Whitelatch (6-2, 220) and (junior) Paxton Marling (6-2, 200) — those are the crust of the team in terms of their physicality and being able to get off and execute a block.”
Other offensive and defensive linemen include seniors Shannon Looney (5-10, 175) and Keaton Jones (5-7, 170), junior Wyatt Bratton (6-0, 220), sophomores Grant McCabe (5-10, 180), Seth George (6-0, 200), Lucca Ferrara (5-9, 215), Gavin Hanlin (6-0, 225) and freshmen Zeke Burkle (5-7, 180), Haji Marin (5-8, 215), Hunter Kerr (5-9, 150) and Michael McDade (5-10, 280).
Top targets this year in the passing game for the Maroon Knights are seniors Caleb Ratcliffe (6-4, 200), Javon Miller (6-0, 170) and Evan Hanlin (6-0, 160), while Ferrera will also be a key cog at wide receiver.
“We have receivers who will get open and catch the ball,” Young said. “If Michael and Payton can hit them, we’ll have success.”
Along with some veterans, there are some new faces, especially in the receiving corps.
“We have a few new kids,” Young said. “(Senior) Ayden Baker played basketball last year and he’s out for the team. He’ll be a good prospect for us. His size alone will probably have some scouts looking at him because he is 6-5, 225 pounds. That’s a small college’s dream come true for his abilities. Caleb is a nice target, along with Ayden. You’re talking two 6-4, 6-5 kids in Class A football and if we can get into the postseason we can make some noise.
“(Senior) Cole O’Neil (6-2, 205) came over from Cameron last year and we’re looking for him to contribute.
“(Freshman) Braden McWreath (6-1, 160) came in from Little Washington and he’ll get some playing time, too.”
Filling out the receiving corps are juniors Drew Murray (6-2, 140), John Nickerson (6-0, 155) and Landon Jaquay (6-0, 160), sophomores J.J. White (6-0, 150), Jaden Redman (5-10, 150), Noah Loy (5-7, 155), Quinten Burlenski (6-2, 180), Cameron Beasley (5-9, 205) and Lucan Galbraith (6-0, 165), and freshmen Dunn, Luke Tiu (5-9, 125), Griffin Vogrin (5-7, 130) and Jackson Buckner (5-11, 170).
Young and his talented coaching staff are still determining how the defense will look in Week 1 against Ambridge, PA.
“There are unknowns to be seen on defense,” Young said. “We open up against Ambridge, who is a big, physical team and we’ll have our work cut out for us. If we can match up in the first game and have a limited amount of mistakes, we can start off well.”
Even with some unknowns, players who should make an impact on defense are Toepfer and Riley Watkins at linebacker and Whitelatch and Marling on the defensive line.
“We’ll have Toepfer back but he may not be playing as much defense,” Young said. “We’ll have Paxton Marling back, Braden Whitelatch — Whitelatch was hurt a lot last year, so we’re hoping we can keep him healthy and we’ll stay positive with him. Riley Watkins is pretty physical on both sides of the ball but we still have a lot of unknowns, so we’re hoping we can grow up fast and just continue to get better.”
One position Young is certain of is kicker. Last year as a freshman, Tucker earned second team all-state honors and he is only getting better.
“I’m very high on what Eli Tucker is doing with his leg in the kicking game,” Young said. “His field goals and kickoffs are great and if he continues to get better, which he is because he is only a sophomore, he’ll be a great one. He’ll see a lot of playing time on the field, too, as a running back, a defensive back and at linebacker. He’s aggressive. Eli is a great kid and he is a competitor. He is playing football and soccer and he’ll be a contender there, too.”
With last season ending without a state title due to COVID, the Knights have not lost a playoff game in over four years, but Young and his team love the responsibilities that come with that kind of success.
“People say ‘the expectations are always so high,’ but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Young said. “I wouldn’t want them to think less of us.”
Joining Young on the sidelines is an experienced coaching staff of Jason Rine, Shannon Kuchinski, Jim Wolfe, Phil Pest, Ed Anderson, Mario DiBias, Chase Siebieda, John Tankovits, Felix Bruno and Keith Bell, along with trainers Justin Kiger and Adrian Moses.
“Anybody who can coach 51 years and have as much fun as I do, I’m just fortunate,” Young said. “When you surround yourself with success, you have success. I hope I can do it for another 50.
“We have a veteran staff and we all have a great amount of mutual respect for each other and we work hard together. We have three great coordinators in coach (Kuchinski), coach Pest and coach Rine. Our line coaches, that’s where it all starts with coach Wolfe and coach Siebieda and coach Tank. Coach DiBias and coach Tankovits are both grads of Wheeling Central so the tradition stays on and we’ll just try to keep it going.”
Braxton Anderson, Ayden Baker, Ben Foster, Evan Hanlin, Andrew Johnson, Keaton Jones, Shannon Looney, Cody Martos, Javon Miller, Cole O’Neil, Caleb Ratcliffe, Michael Toepfer
Wyatt Bratton, Lorenzo Ferrera, Andrew Hartzell, Payton Hildebrand, Landon Jaquay, Paxton Marling, Drew Murray, John Nickerson, Deante Suggs, Parker Watkins, Riley Watkins, Braden Whitelatch
Cameron Beasley, Quinten Burlenski, Lucca Ferrera, Lucan Galbraith, Seth George, Gavin Hanlin, Noah Loy, Grant McCabe, Jaden Redman, Eli Tucker, J.J. White
Jackson Buckner, Zeke Burkle, Seth Cover, Trey Dunn, Hunter Kerr, Haji Marin, Michael McDade, Braden McWreath, Luke Tiu, Griffin Vogrin, Ty Wheeler