Wheeling Central heading back to state championship

FRANKLIN — After a season-ending injury to their star quarterback Curtis McGhee and three road playoff games, the Wheeling Central Maroon Knights are heading back to the West Virginia Class A state championship.

The two-time defending state champions punched their ticket Friday night, as the No. 10 seeded Knights upended No. 3 Pendleton County, 27-7, and will now take on elusive running back Hunter America and top-seeded Doddridge County for the state title at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wheeling Island Stadium.

“I’m just proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” Central coach Mike Young said. “When we lost Curtis McGhee, people questioned what we were going to be able to do, but Jacob Rine stepped in and we had kids step up.

“Jordan Waterhouse has had great running, great defense and great punting, and Adam Murray is all over the field tackling and blocking. I can’t say enough about all of these kids and our line up front. It’s just an all out team effort, and we’re just happy to be going back to the Super Six.”

The explosive Waterhouse led the Knights with 179 yards rushing and collected two interceptions.

However, Pendleton County struck paydirt first. After Dalton Dunkle recovered a fumble, quarterback Isaiah Gardiner rumbled in from 1 yard out and a 7-0 edge.

The lead was short-lived, as Central rattled off 27 unanswered points.

Senior quarterback Jacob Rine found fellow senior Jalen Creighton on the ensuing drive for a 48-yard touchdown strike for the equalizer. Two possessions later, Waterhouse broke loose for a 68-yard dash down the Central sideline to give his team a 14-7 edge.

The Knights got tricky late in the first half. Creighton took a pitch and caught the defense napping, launching a 25-yard pass to a wide open Payton Marling for 6 and a 20-7 upper hand at the half.

On their first possession of the second half, the Knights fumbled the ball, which was scooped up by Pendleton County’s 6-foot-2, 230-pound defensive end Josh Alt, for a 50-yard return to set his team up with outstanding field position at Central’s 32. But, the Knights’ defense stood tall and forced a turnover on downs to halt the momentum for good.

“We knew if we had their backs against the wall that we could bend a little bit, but we couldn’t break,” Young said. “That was key to what we did there.”

Rine added a 15-yard quarterback option keeper for the game’s final score.

“Hats off to our kids,” Young said. “They played their hearts out. To drive down here four hours (Friday) and have the length of the day we had and to come out and play — we were a little rugged in the beginning — credit to these kids and all of these fans that came down to support us. It says a lot about Central nation and the Central family.

“This is a great win and credit to Pendleton County and their team and their coaches. They played hard to the bitter end, but I couldn’t be more proud of what I saw here (Friday) on this field from our kids.”

Following Pendleton County’s first score, the Knights forced the Wildcats into four punts, three turnovers on downs, three interceptions and a fumble the rest of the way. Senior linebacker Adam Murray forced the fumble, and Creighton secured the third interception.

The Central defense has been stifling all postseason long. Led by Murray, the Knights defense has allowed just 19 points and 466 yards in their last three games, as they held the Wildcats to 126 total yards of offense.

“We knew — when you lose a Curtis McGhee like we did — we knew that was a huge part of our offense,” Young said. “But, the thing was we had to get better in other areas,and our defense has stepped up and hats off to coach (Shannon) Kuchinski and his game plan with coach (Brett) Clough. Special teams did a heckuva job (Friday), too, with coach (Phil) Pest.”

After suffering an 0-3 mark on the road during the regular season against foes such as Fort Frye, Linsly and Martins Ferry, Wheeling Central also picked up their third-straight road win of the postseason.

On its voyage throughout the playoffs, Wheeling Central traveled over 1,200 miles round trip, which included visits to Tolsia, Ritchie County and Pendleton County.

“I was joking with the kids and told them we were going to get a charter bus to go (to the Super Six),” Young said. “But, I don’t think we can afford any more busses.

“I kept telling them when we get back home we would have traveled over 1,200 miles. That’s the longest we’ve ever traveled for a state championship, but it did build it up. I said, ‘Hey, if we are going to do this, we are going to make it worth our while.'”

So, after three long journeys and three memorable triumphs, Wheeling Central is coming home to Wheeling Island.

“With our fans, athletic department, boosters, we’ve probably put in over 6,000 dollars in charter busses just for our team and cheerleaders alone, but that just shows the love and support people have for our kids and our program,” Young said.

Wheeling Central 27, Pendleton County 7

Wheeling Central 7-13-7-0 — 27

Pendleton County 7-0-0-0 — 7

P — Gardiner 1 run (Alt kick), 5:50

W — Creighton 48 pass from Rine (Rine kick), 4:13

W — Waterhouse 68 run (Rine kick), 9:15

W — Marling 25 pass from Creighton (kick failed), 3:15

W — Rine 15 run (Rine kick), :58

Rushing: Wheeling Central 34-268-2td (Marling 4-29, Waterhouse 21-179-td, Murray 2-1, Rine 7-59-td); Pendleton County 33-66-td (Fawley 6-3, Gardiner 22-51-td, Smith 3-9, Dunkle 2-3).

Passing: Wheeling Central 6-15-97-2td (Rine 5-9-72-td, Creighton 1-1-25-td); Pendleton County 9-28-60-3x (all by Gardiner).

Receiving: Wheeling Central 6-97-2td (Marling 5-49-td, Creighton 1-48-td); 9-60 (Dunkle 4-23, Kuykendall 1-3, Fawley 1-3, Mcclanahan 2-31, Lockard 1-6)

First Downs: Wheeling Central 15; Pendleton County 8.

Penalties: Wheeling Central 6-60; Pendleton County 2-10.

Fumbles-Lost: Wheeling Central 3-3; Pendleton County 0-0.