Blue Dons look to cool down Wheeling Central
WEIRTON — Madonna, riding a four-game winning streak, will have it’s hands full Saturday when perennial Class A powerhouse Wheeling Central invades Jimmy Carey Stadium in a rivalry clash between the only two remaining parochial high schools in the Northern Panhandle. The opening kick is set for 7 p.m., but that could change.
The teams have played each other 24 times off and on since the first meeting in 1964, with the defending state champion Maroon Knights leading in the series 20-4. The last time the Blue Dons beat Wheeling Central was during the regular season in 2013 when Madonna won the Class A state championship with a perfect 14-0 record. They last played against each other two years ago with the Maroon Knights winning 55-0.
This will be an important game for playoff status for both teams. Despite both teams winning last week, they each dopped a spot in this week’s Class A rankings. The Blue Dons slipped to 17th, while Wheeling Central now is 20th.
This will be the second trip this year to Jimmy Carey Stadium for the Maroon Knights. They downed Weir High, 35-12, on Oct. 9. The Maroon Knights started the season with two losses but have won four of their last five.
“Wheeling Central plays a really tough schedule,” Madonna first-year coach Dan Rovira said. “They are hard to defend, and they have a rugged defense that applies a lot of pressure at the line of scrimmage.”
Jordan Waterhouse is the featured running back for veteran Wheeling Central coach Mike Young, who is in his 50th year of coaching and his 21st year as the head man of the Maroon Knights. Waterhouse scorched the Weir High defense for 171 yards and three touchdowns. Fellow senior Payton Marling is another key to the Maroon Knight offense. He ran for 61 yards and one score against the Red Riders. Marling doubles as the quarterback at times and completed the only pass he threw in the Weir High game for 42 yards. Sophomore Riley Watkins got 11 carries against Weir High and tallied 60 yards.
“Wheeling Central is a well-rounded team,” Rovira said. “They primarily run the football. We’re happy where we are at right now. We’re just trying to get ready for a very dangerous opponent. We have not played a team like this all year. Regardless of the outcome, I told the kids a win would go a long way toward improving our playoff chances. We still have two games left after this, so a loss won’t eliminate us either.
“If you stop their running game, they go into a wildcat with Marling looking for open holes, and if he doesn’t see any, he goes to the outside. They are very tough to defend.”
Young commented that the Blue Dons play a wide open brand of football.
“They throw the ball and run it well,” he said. “They also do a nice job on defense and with special teams. I don’t believe they have played the same level of teams that we have, but they are very well coached and do a very good job with what they do.
“Coach Rovira has stepped into that job this year and really has that team performing very well. Actually, coach Rovira and I coached together a few years ago with the North team in the North-South All-Star game in Charleston.
“We have to contain (Santino) Arlia and play good defense, and (Thomas) Sessi is a dangerous running back and receiver. We’ll do what we always do, and that is to take what they give us and try to do what we have to do to win. Our philosophy always has been to get better each day in practice.”
Rovira said that Wheeling Central has a storied program.
“I told our kids you don’t have to beat them 10 times; you only have to beat them one time,” he said. “We’ll have our pre-game meal Saturday afternoon, get on the bus to the stadium, kick the ball off and play football the best we can. One thing I know about this group is they won’t quit. In Class A, if you want to win a state championship, you must go through Wheeling Central.”
The Maroon Knights have won eight state titles since Young took over in 2005, and that includes the last three years in a row.
Rovira said he’s concerned about the Wheeling Central defensive front. He said the Maroon Knights generally rush five or six and try to apply pressure to the opponent backfield.
“I told Arlia that if we get out-manned like that on defense not to try to do something heroic,” he said. “Just take the sack, we’ll punt and try to stop them with our defense. He (Arlia) has done that pretty well so far. He has come a long way, matured and I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Arlia recaptured the top quarterback spot among quarterbacks in the 11-school Herald-Star/Daily Times coverage area with a 337-yard passing effort last week in the lopsided 61-20 win over Beallsville. He now has completed 78 of 155 passes for 1,485 yards, a whopping 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Sessi also had a big game rushing last week and moved up the list of area running backs. He ran for 210 yards and four touchdowns last week. He scored a fifth time when he intercepted a pass and dashed 70 yards to pay dirt.
“We have to rely on our offensive and defensive lines to continue to improve,” Rovira said of his keys to victory. “They now are doing a lot of things right. We can’t give up big plays and not turn the ball over. We have to take advantage of any opportunity that Wheeling Central gives us.
“They don’t give many. They are state champs for a reason.”