Wheeling Park Wins First Football Crown
Wheeling Park’s football season has been an emotional ride filled with blood, sweat and tears. But when the clock hit all zeros in the fourth quarter at Wheeling Island Stadium on Saturday, the team’s ride ended on top as West Virginia Class AAA state champions.
Tre Saunders intercepted his third pass of the game on a last-second hail mary heave into the end zone by Capital quarterback Tyrhee Pratt, giving the Patriots their first football state championship in the school’s 39-year history, 23-15.
“It was a little surreal when the clock hit zero,” Wheeling Park coach Chris Daugherty said. “I thought to myself ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s been an unbelievable ride and it’s been a great ride, but a painful ride too. This team battled a lot of things and it strengthened and sharpened us. I am so proud of the type of kids we have right now. They don’t quit, they keep battling in life and in football and it is an amazing group of kids to be around. It kind of inspires me really, because you want to live life like they are.”
Park’s Savion Johnson?(21) charges the ball left down the field.
Trailing 23-13 with less than two minutes to play, Capital forced Wheeling Park into a fourth down on its own 12-yard line. The Cougars blocked the Patriots punt and the ball went out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
Without any timeouts and down 23-15 with 1:07 remaining, the Cougars started the drive at their 47-yard line. Three plays later, Pratt completed a pass in the middle of the field with just seconds left and the team ran up to the line of scrimmage and got another one off with one second remaining, before Saunders sealed it with the pick as time expired.
“Well there was a little bit of me that started feeling flashbacks of ’91, to tell you the truth,” Daugherty said. “It’s just ‘hold on here.’ Offensively we dug ourselves some holes in the second half and had trouble getting out of it. Our defense kept battling and making plays and giving the ball back to the offense. It was a good football team over there so they are going to do that to you.”
Wheeling Park (12-1-1) struck first in front of a standing-room-only crowd when sophomore quarterback Cross Wilkinson hit senior Elijah Bell on a 35-yard pass play with 7:34 left in the first quarter to grab a 7-0 lead. Wilkinson finished 8 of 12 for 107 yards and two touchdowns, while Bell hauled in four of those passes for 72 yards.
“I dropped back and saw two defenders coming at me so I rolled out,” Wilkinson said. “I let Elijah go get it and he did. This is just a great feeling to win. We just made history for the city and the school. I know people on the ’91 team and we wanted to go out and win for them.”
Capital (10-3) answered back to tie the game in the second quarter on a screen play when Pratt hit a wide open Silas Nazario from 10 yards out with 10:18 remaining. Chase Gheen tacked on a 28-yard field to give Park a 10-7 lead with 7:09 remaining in the half on a drive highlighted by a 38-yard run by Johnson.
Wheeling Park scored on its last possession of the first half when Wilkinson hit Jamez Coles on a small jet sweep pass and he took it 19 yards to make the game 17-7 at halftime.
“They are a great football team,” Capital coach Jon Carpenter said. “I thought they were better than a lot of teams we played last year in our championship run. They made plays and that is why they are out here celebrating. It just wasn’t our day and we had a hard time matching their enthusiasm.
“Losing our seniors is hard. I have cried six or seven times this week. Since I have been there we have always tried to motivate out of love and not fear. The bad about loving our kids the way we do is it is hard to see them go. If we were 0-10 or 13-0, it is always hard to see kids leave.”
In the third quarter on Capital’s opening second-half drive, Wheeling Park’s Chase Adams returned a blocked punt to the Capital 6-yard line. On the next play, Johnson went down with a shoulder injury forcing him to leave the game. Adams, the backup tailback, went untouched into the end zone from 2 yards out to give the Patriots a 23-7 lead with 10:22 left in the third quarter.
Johnson would return to the game on Park’s next offensive series and finished the game with 123 rushing yards on 30 carries, earning him player of the game for Park.
Pratt muscled his way into the end zone late in the third quarter on an 8-yard run to make the score 23-13 with 57 seconds left. Pratt failed to get into the end zone on a run for the 2-point conversion as he finished with 90 rushing yards on 24 carries to earn player of the game for Capital.
Pratt threw for 98 yards on 12 of 27 accuracy but was victimized by the three interceptions by Saunders. Freshman running back Kalai Clark finished with 75 rushing yards on 13 attempts for the Cougars.
“We have the best defense in the state,” Johnson said. “I knew they weren’t going to get it in when it came down to the end. I think this season is more than just about our first title. We battled through so much as a team, we are just brothers. Heart got us over the edge. Coach Daugherty talked before the game about having things that can’t be measured. Forty times and broad jumps can be measured but heart and hustle can’t be measured. He said we are a special team and he believed in us from the beginning.
“I have been thinking about winning this forever. Nick Nardone talked about how some of us will never be playing football again and how none of us will be playing together again. This was the last game and we gave everything we had for each other.”