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Wheeling Central has sights set on a Super Six berth against Ritchie

WHEELING — The goal at Wheeling Central at the start of a new campaign is always a state championship.

The Maroon Knights are one win away from getting there.

No. 8 Wheeling Central will hit the road for the first time this postseason on Saturday when it visits No. 4 Ritchie County at 1:30 p.m. in a West Virginia Class A semifinal with the winner marching on to the state championship.

“Throughout the season we talk about playing in the first week of December,” Central coach Mike Young said. “This is the climax of it all. It’s the last hurrah to get there and we have to come out blazing and playing together. It’s not about one individual. Seven kids scored for us last week. It’s about a team playing four quarters of Wheeling Central football.”

Two seasons ago, the Knights hit the road in every playoff game before playing the state title tilt in their hometown. This time around, they have played their first two postseason contests at Wheeling Island Stadium and will now take the 81-mile trek with hopes of earning another game on the island.

“The last time we made the playoffs we traveled 1,200 miles,” Young said. “Down to Ritchie isn’t bad compared to that. The goal is to be back in our backyard next week. We’re going to practice on grass this week to get our footing down so we can adjust to their field conditions because we can’t use that as an excuse to not play to our level.

“The field is 100 yards long for both sides and we have to maintain stability to put points on the board.”

That hasn’t been an issue so far for Central and its defense has done a phenomenal job of keeping other teams from doing it. In the first two rounds of playoff action, the Knights have outscored opponents 90-7.

Leading the defense has been Cody Martos with 93 tackles, eight TFL and four sacks, while Andrew Johnson has accounted for 78 stops, four TFL and 1.5 sacks, Ayden Baker has amassed 64 tackles, 13 TFL, 10.5 sacks and one interception and Braden Whitelatch has disrupted QBs all year with seven sacks, 35 stops and two TFL.

Lorenzo Ferrera and Jayvon Miller each have four interceptions to lead the team.

“Our special teams, kick offs and punting — it’s a tribute to them,” Young said. “It’s been great game planning by our defensive coordinator coach (Shannon) Kuchinski and our offensive coordinator Jason Rine breaking down film. We take a lot of pride in each other’s coaching abilities on and off the field and we are very fortunate to have such a veteran staff who understands the game and can breakdown teams’ tendencies, so we’re able to adjust our game plan accordingly.

“Our special teams coach Phil Pest does a great job with (kicker/punter) Eli (Tucker) and the punting game. He takes a lot of pride in getting the kids ready.”

Along with seven players scoring touchdowns, the Knights’ running game was also evenly spread out. Riley Watkins, Ferrera and Martos each handled seven carries and gained 139, 86 and 73 yards, respectively.

For the season, Watkins leads the backfield with 894 yards rushing, followed by Ferrera with 761 and Martos with 362.

Quarterback Payton Hildebrand completed 2 of 3 passes for 34 yards and a touchdown but simply didn’t need to air it out with the stellar running game working.

Caleb Ratcliffe has been the Knights’ top target this year and he showed why on Saturday. The senior hauled in a one-handed touchdown to leave the fans and the opponent in awe.

Ratcliffe has 34 receptions in 2021 for 556 yards and eight touchdowns.

Junior quarterback Ethan Haught leads the Rebels offense with 1,885 yards, 21 touchdowns and five interceptions on 105 of 175 passing. He has also rushed for 339 yards and eight scores.

Gus Morrison is a lethal weapon for the Rebels with 931 yards rushing and 16 TDs, along with 734 yards receiving and 11 more scores.

Brandon Riddle has run for 908 yards and 12 scores, as well.

Austin Bartlett leads the Ritchie County defense with 90 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and eight sacks.

“Their quarterback is a veteran,” Young said. “We saw him as a freshman a few years back. They are well coached, their running backs are aggressive and they are defensively sound. They get to the ball. We’ll have our work cut out for us. They are not playing in the state semifinals because they are weak.”

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Doddridge County will host No. 6 Williamstown for a spot in the state title.

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