WHEELING — One thing about high school football is that when one senior class leaves, there is another group waiting in the wings, dreaming for their shot in the spotlight.
That time has come at Wheeling Park after a stellar senior class earned their diplomas last year, leaving the door open for this year’s Friday night heroes to leave their mark.
Some of the players from last year’s outstanding senior class are three first team all-state players in wide receiver Shaheed Jackson, offensive lineman Caleb Bryan and kicker Andrew Glass, along with All-Valley honorees in quarterback Beau Heller and running back Stevie Mitchell, not to mention standout receivers Torrence Walker, Sincere Sinclair and Carson Namack.
Those seniors played their final game in a postseason win but due to West Virginia’s COVID color map, they were eliminated and forced to watch their memorable season come to an end.
“We lost a lot of kids last year and they don’t get the opportunity to come back and finish that season,” Park coach Chris Daugherty said. “It was a tough situation. Everybody was healthy but it was just a crazy year and a tough pill to swallow.”
Coach Chris Daugherty discusses the upcoming campaign
Jackson racked up 597 yards receiving with 10 touchdowns to go with 27 tackles and three interceptions — one for a touchdown.
Bryan turned in a run grade of 97% and a pass protection grade of 98%, Glass connected on 43 of 45 extra points and was 5-for-6 field goals, including a season-long 47-yarder.
Mitchell recorded 1,255 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns, while also charting a TD catch.
Heller amassed 1,684 yards and 23 touchdown passes, leaving big shoes to fill.
“Last year at times it was tough to find a weakness,” Daugherty said. “We had a nice set of receivers, a nice quarterback and the line played exceptionally well. We had a great tailback in Stevie to give the ball to. The downside to that is you lose a bunch of kids. The upside to it, however, is you gain a bunch of kids who are talented and excited to get after it.
“You can tell they know ‘this is my turn.’ Last year they were kind of standing off to the side saying ‘yeah, this group is pretty good. I”m going to have to wait my turn.’ So, you can see the excitement in this young group and they are fun to coach.”
Junior Brett Phillips (6-foot-2, 175 pounds) will try on those shoes this year as he takes on the task of leading the Park offense.
“Last year we felt like at any time, if Beau would have gotten hurt, Brett could have gone in and done great things,” Daugherty said. “Now it’s his opportunity to take charge. He had a great offseason and we’re really excited about what he can do. He is a dual-threat quarterback who can run and throw. It’s exciting to coach a kid like him.”
Replacing last year’s speedsters won’t be easy either, but Jerrae Hawkins is a good start.
“I feel like we have some quality kids coming up,” Daugherty said. “I’m also happy with where (sophomore) Keohn Stephens (5-9, 130) and (junior) Will James (5-10, 150) are. Those three kids have really stood out. We may even use (2020 all-state defensive back and senior) Nate Shelek on the offensive side of the ball. He’s always had the ability and we didn’t have to do it but now he’s a senior. He’s been an exceptional safety for us but you will see him at wide receiver this year.”
Senior Hunter Nixon (5-11, 175), who is known for his tackling abilities at linebacker, looks to be the No. 1 candidate at running back this year.
“Hunter has been a three-year starter for us at linebacker,” Daugherty said. “You will see him in the backfield. He is a fast and physical kid and we feel like we have some good, young kids. We’ll have (senior) Brandon Mundy back there with him. It’s hard to lose a kid like Stevie so we might be a little bit different with how we play but we will still be effective.”
Daugherty and his staff are still getting a feel for what the offensive line might look like but there are some players who have been standing out to this point in camp.
“The line is the most difficult thing to find because you have to wait until the pads are on so until then they can be hard to separate,” Daugherty said. “(Senior) Zayne Ackley (6-0, 250) got a lot of time and so did Zach Parsons last year. They are almost returners, even though they weren’t starters, they subbed a lot and they know what they are doing. We need to find a center, another guard and another tackle. We have some good competition going on with (junior) Mike Hogan (6-4, 325) starting to emerge and Merrick Miller is looking good at center. I feel like we have the parts but it’s just a matter of getting out and playing football, making some mistakes and getting them fixed.”
The Patriots return one of the most solid linebacker units in the state and Ohio Valley in Nixon, (junior) Erick Brothers Jr. (6-2, 210) and Colton Thomas.
“Linebacker is going to be a strength for us,” Daugherty said. “I thought they were one of the better groups in the state and in the valley last year. They all return. They all move well, they are physical and they just enjoy football. Colton Thomas — he would come here everyday and just practice football he loves it so much. He brings that to other kids.
“Nixon did a great job last year and Erick Brothers Jr. has had a great wrestling career and he played for us as a sophomore last year. We expect to see him improve this year because he is already a more seasoned linebacker than last year. (Senior) Trevor Howell (6-0, 185) will be a fourth linebacker for us, which is nice.”
The rest of the defense also has some key returners from the 2020 squad but Daugherty is hoping to find another cornerback or two that sticks out among the rest.
“We have two of the four back on the defensive line with (senior) Devon Rayford (5-7, 245) and Jacob Stewart,” Daugherty said. “We have our safety back in Nate Shelek but we have to find some corners. So far (junior) Isaiah Zelaski (5-10, 162) is doing a good job at corner and in the secondary so we are feeling good about that.”