Wheeling Central eyes third straight title

WHEELING — Expectations are always high at Wheeling Central and this year is no exception.

The Maroon Knights are coming off two straight W.Va. Class A state championships and return a plethora of talent, including two-time Huff Award winner Adam Murray and sensational starting quarterback Curtis McGhee III.

“We are looking for big things from our seniors. I have 12 seniors,” Wheeling Central coach Mike Young said. “Leadership is huge in high school. Leadership is vital and important in high school. You are going to have adversity and you are going to be challenged on the field. Your seniors lead you through that.

“Curtis McGhee, I can’t say enough about him and Adam Murray. Curtis and Adam are born leaders. Not just on the field, but in the classroom. Outstanding student-athletes. We know we have a couple of gems there in their leadership and talent.

“At the same time, we know we have some great talent around them in Jalen Creighton, Payton Marling, Jordan Waterhouse, Nick Sherman, Hayden Manns and Michael Horan, who had a great end of the season last year. We had a great offseason and we think we will be able to compete.”

Don’t think it will be easy, though.

Wheeling Central plays what Young says is the most challenging slate during his 14-year tenure as head coach with the Maroon Knights.

Wheeling Central opens the season tonight at home against Williamstown in a rematch of last season’s Class A state championship.

The Maroon Knights will also have tough games against Steubenville Catholic, Magnolia, Linsly, St. Clairsville, Martins Ferry, Western Reserve, Shadyside and Fort Frye.

“You look at opening up against Williamstown, then Steubenville Central, then Shadyside, Linsly is going to be a powerhouse,” Young said. “But I like our chances against every opponent we play. I like our chances against the schedule we have and if we can win enough games, I like our chances to get back on the island, which is always our goal.

“Since I have been here, we have had three 6-4 seasons and won state championships with those. And the reason we did is because of the schedule we play. Our kids have been tested, paddled hard and that puts us in the postseason with a tougher schedule than most teams in Single A play.”

McGhee (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) will lead the Maroon Knights on offense, beginning his third year under center.

McGhee, who recently committed to Brown University, was a first team all-state quarterback in 2018 after accumulating 3,199 total yards and accounting for 44 total touchdowns. McGhee was 132 of 201 for 2,357 yards and 33 touchdowns against three interceptions, while also running for 842 yards and 11 scores. This is despite missing three games because of injury.

“Curtis is a player that is a coach’s coach on the field,” Young said. “He and I only continue to understand each other better and he knows what my expectations are of him and what we want. We are very fortunate to have somebody as a third-year starter.

“When he started out as a sophomore, we were 2-4 and his head was spinning and so was ours. But he settled in, got comfortable through every day work, through patience, through hard work. Once he settled in, everybody settled in and we won a state championship. When your quarterback is comfortable, especially with the offense we run where you have to run and throw, it is an added player on the field.”

Backing him up is senior Jacob Rine, who was a solid fill-in for McGhee at the end of the regular season when the starter was injured. Michael Toepfer may also contribute.

One of the biggest losses for the Maroon Knights will be “Mr. Everything” Bray Price.

Looking to replace his instant offense will be a host of players that can play both tailback and wideout.

Juniors Jordan Waterhouse (6-0, 175) and Payton Marling (6-0, 180) are two players that should see carries and be able to take it the distance.

Senior Ethan Turner (5-7, 158), junior Nigel Walsh (6-0, 175), sophomore Braxton Anderson (5-9, 150) and freshman Riley Watkins (5-6, 148) could also see snaps in the backfield.

Marling, Jalen Creighton (senior, 6-0, 180), Rine (senior, 5-4, 145), Mason Smith (junior, 6-0, 160) and Vinnie High (junior, 6-0, 170) will be the wideouts.

“We have talent and we have backups, and that is huge with the schedule we play,” Young said. “When you play St. Clairsville, Martins Ferry, Fort Frye, those are huge, physical teams. It is a challenge and one of the things I love about this game for 48 years is trying to out-wit, out-maneuver, out-scheme coaches. We try to put our kids in the best position they can be in to win a football game.

“We may not have the speed of Bray Price and may not make as big of plays, but we have more of an arsenal to fire out there of kids that can make plays. We have got kids that can make plays.”

One of the biggest question marks for the Maroon Knights will be in the trenches.

“We are green up front in the line area,” Young said. “We lost Dom Mills and Luke Duplaga at key spots. We have some good kids coming back, but we are looking for these other kids to make a name for themselves. Last year, Dom Mills was a basketball player, came out his senior year and is now playing at West Liberty. We feel the same thing can happen with the kids we have this year.”

Hayden Manns (senior, 6-1, 280), Michael Horan (senior, 6-0, 220) Spencer Helms (junior, 6-0, 247), Andrew Burkle (junior, 5-10, 220), C.J. Rose (senior, 5-9, 240), Kyle Brown (senior, 6-0, 220), Jude Cottrell (junior, 6-0, 280), Kaden Yocum (junior, 6-3, 200) and Ben Foster (sophomore, 6-1, 255) give the Maroon Knights a number of combinations to block for the playmakers.

“You are talking some pretty good size,” Young said. “Not great, but good. We are looking for these young guys to step in and contribute. Having Michael Horan and CJ Rose back at guards, along with Hayden Manns, those three are our mainstays. We have some experience, but we are looking for to see who will step up and win the other spots. “

First-year player Josh Custer, a 6-1, 185-pound senior, will get a look at tight end, along with senior Nick Sherman (6-3, 175).

Last season, the Maroon Knights defense was as dominant as you will find. The Maroon Knights were rarely scored on and most of the time they were, the game was already out of control.

Murray is the heart of the Wheeling Central defense. Along with the Huff Award, Murray was named winner of last season’s Chuck Howley Award, given to the state’s top linebacker and named after the former Warwood native and Super Bowl MVP.

Murray leads the middle linebackers, along with Sherman. Turner and Toepfer are the backups. High and Burkle could also see time.

Marling, Smith, High, Walsh and Cody Martos are in the mix for outside linebacker.

McGhee will start at strong safety with Creighton and Waterhouse also being key parts of the secondary. Junior Trey Helms should also start there

Anderson, along with freshmen Riley Watkins, Drew Murray, Lorenzo Ferrera and Payton Hildebrand will be the backups. Sophomore Andrew Johnson broke his thumb but should be back after the first month.

Young said the defensive line is “looking really good.”

Horan and Spencer Helms are back to attack on the ends with Custer and Yocum also seeing time.

Clogging up the middle will be a rotation with Manns, Rose, Foster, Brown and Michael Funka.

Rine and senior Peyton Anderson will share the placekicking duties, while Adam Murray and Waterhouse will handle the punting.

Sherman and Cottrell are the long snappers.

“We look forward to it,” Young said. “We lost some great kids and those things are tough to replace. But at the same time, our kids practiced against them and got better. The improvement has to be made for the first game and we have some green out there, but at the same time, good kids.

“It has been a great first week. They are focused. They are attentive. They are working hard and getting along. Very few distractions, which is huge at the high school level today.

“We are not making too many changes because we have been successful through the years at what we are doing. The changes we do make are to see what we can do to be better. I am really pleased with what we have in terms of attitude. We haven’t played anybody yet. We haven’t lost to anybody yet. We are staring out undefeated, just like everyone else.

“We are proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we are not going to rest on our laurels.”

The Maroon Knights have a veteran coaching staff that features Jason Rine, Shannon Kuchinski, Jim Wolfe, Phil Pest, Brett Clough, Ed Anderson, Felix Bruno, Keith Bell and Lee Peluchette.