WHEELING — There are few, if any, teams in the valley who lost more talent to graduation last year than Wheeling Central.
The prospect of losing quarterback Michael Toepfer, running backs Cody Martos and Braxton Anderson, receiver Caleb Ratcliffe and defensive end Ayden Baker all in one class might make some coaches a little nervous, not 52-year veteran Mike Young, however.
“It’s tough to replace someone of that level, but we’ve got great kids stepping up,” Young said. “I look at our seniors and our senior leadership…and we’ve got some kids out there that, as long as we can stay healthy, we can be fine.”
Two factors that give Young confidence are a very talented group of returning lettermen that he feels can step right in for those graduates and a 22-man freshman class that has boosted the team’s roster numbers into the 50s.
“We knew we had a nice-sized freshman class coming in and we knew that we had a couple of guys who didn’t play last year who were going to come out,” Young said. “Anytime you can get something like that it’s a plus because it helps you out immensely in practice.
Coach Mike Young discusses the upcoming campaign
As always, Young has constructed a challenging schedule that will test his Maroon Knights in a variety of ways throughout the season. Opponents on the schedule include a pair of defending OVAC champions in Bellaire (Class 3A) and Shadyside (2A) and a pair of long-distance roadtrips to play at Mount View and Berkeley Springs.
“We’re looking forward to having a very respectful year,” Young said. “(The schedule) is very challenging, traveling to Berkeley Springs and to Mount View. Traveling like that for high school football is challenging but yet it’s exciting that you can take your team across the state and compete.”
Young’s philosophy is that if his players can survive a tough schedule, they’ll be able to compete for a state championship once the playoffs roll around.
“We’re very fortunate as a single A school to be able to put that many (players) out and play the schedule that we play,” he said. “We really believe that if we can get into the postseason, we can make some noise. Because of our schedule, whether it’s traveling long distances or playing up, that’s our biggest challenge.”
Areas of confidence for Young and the Maroon Knights this year are a senior-laden offensive line, an experienced returning quarterback in senior Payton Hildebrand and explosive playmakers at the skill positions.
Senior classmates Deante Suggs (6-1, 253), Wyatt Bratton (6-1, 230), Andrew Hartzell (5-10, 210) and Braden Whitelatch (6-2, 225) create a unified, cohesive front that will anchor Central’s offense.
“It’s a combination of the experience, the size and the leadership,” Young said of his offensive line. “That’s a huge factor up front because most of the time your line are unsung heroes but they’re the force behind all of your success. They’re the measuring stick of whether you’ll win or lose.”
Junior Lucca Ferrera and sophomore Haji Marin will also see time on the line this season.
“They take a lot of pride in what they’re doing,” Young continued. “If you have that unity up there, they buy in and they want the challenge of saying ‘I opened the whole, I made the block, I was able to recover the fumble.'”
The line will be blocking for signal-caller Hildebrand (5-10, 165) who split time with Toepfer under center in 2021.
“Payton’s looking real good and he’s got two real good guys with him,” Young said. “Having that experience with Payton and having him come back, it’s not only good for him but it’s good for our quarterbacks that are with him.”
Other quarterbacks are sophomore Seth Cover and freshman Eli Sancomb.
Toting the rock in the backfield will bea pair of seniors in Riley Watkins and versatile playmaker Lorenzo Ferrera.
“We see opportunities there that we haven’t had in the past because we have depth up front and we have depth in the backfield,” Young said. “We have kids that can get on the perimeter and get outside.”
Central’s bevy of receiving options includes sophomore speedster Braden McWreath and classmates Trey Dunn and juniors Lucan Galberth, JJ White, Jayden Redman and Noah Loy. A trio of tight ends is made up of senior Paxton Marling, junior Hayden Mueller and freshman Troy Mortakis.
Central will stick with its usual offense, featuring plenty of play-action calls and pre-snap movement. Young said modern offenses are all about speed and getting big plays and the Maroon Knights will be no different.
“If you stop our run, we’re going to throw it. If you can’t stop our run, we’re going to keep running,” he said. “It used to be played in a phone booth and most of the kids today don’t even know what a phone booth is. But they do know a runway, and we’re on a runway.”
Returning junior Eli Tucker will continue to handle the team’s kicking duties.
The team’s great depth will play a big factor on defense, where Young said some players’ responsibilities playing both ways may be diminished if and when the younger players develop.
“We say to them all the time that it’s an eight-second sellout,” Young said. “Most plays only last eight seconds and you’re playing 48 minutes. You don’t think that’s long, but when you’re carrying around a helmet and shoulder pads and it’s 80, 85 degrees with humidity in the 90s, those are factors whether you win or lose.”
Young also believes that some of the young players bring and added element of speed to the team’s defense.
“I think we’ll be quicker,” Young said. “We won’t be as experienced but I’ve got young kids that have stepped in there and stepped up that I have a lot of faith in.”
Receiver/defensive back John Nickerson rounds out the senior class. Junior linemen Seth George, Gavin Hanlin and Grant McCabe complete the upperclassmen on the team.
Von Crail, Hunter Kerr, Michael McDade and Alex Nanney add to the sophomores while the large freshman group includes Carver Bolon, Wyatt Brady, Brock Clyburn, Tanner Dunlap, Cannon Goddard, Caleb Golden, Joey Hall, Nino Jerrome, Kade Koroneos, Isaac Lucious, Brennan Maloney, Isaac Martin, Max Olejasz, Sheldon Raab, Owen Rohrig, Isaac Sands, Paul Stecker, Maddox Stillton, Luke Wear and Quinton West.
Young is hoping to once again play for a state championship after losing in the Class A semifinals last year.
“I like what we’re doing, I like what my coaches are doing, we’ve got kids that have the heart to play together,” Young said. “We’ve got to finish this year. To compete in the state semis, you’re getting the smell of it, but you’re not getting the taste of it. And we want the taste of playing for a state championship on Wheeling Island in the first week of December.
“Our goal is not to beat somebody, our goal is to beat everybody, that’s how we practice and that’s what our mindset is.”
Young is assisted by Jason Ryan, Shanon Kuchinski, Phil Pest, Jim Wolf, JonDavid Tankovitch, Mario DiBias, Dylan Baker, Charles Dunn, Keith Bell, Felix Bruno and Bredan Carroll.