By Luke Wiggs, Panhandle News Network Sports
— Panhandle News Network: WEPM & WCST (@EPNewsNetwork) August 3, 2022
**click on highlighted names for full previews**
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. – Coming to the Panhandle I wasn’t sure what I should expect when it came to football. Sure Martinsburg is Martinsburg and Jefferson is experiencing some success, but outside of that, I didn’t expect much. I certainly didn’t expect four programs, all of which missed the postseason by a hair, all with legitimate returners poised to build on what they accomplished the season before.
Our State’s Eastern Panhandle is making its strongest case to move the epicenter of high school football away from the Kanawha coal fields and closer to the Nation’s capital. six teams began practice on August 1st, all with playoff aspirations. However, they know they’ll have to go through their fellow EPAC members to accomplish their goal. six teams, with very different styles and personnel only unified in location, and want of a common goal, the post-season.
Musselman (3-7) Last Season
Home Games: Spring Mills, Morgantown, Hedgesville, Washington, Bridgeport
Road games: Martinsburg, Jefferson, Sherando (VA), Wheeling, Parkersburg
Musselman went 3-7 last season posting their first losing record in the Brian Thomas era. The Applemen look to lean on Bayden Hartman and Ray Adames who have the potential to be the best QB/WR duo in the EPAC. Musselman, who started 21 seniors two years ago, is now starting to see the signs of growth from playing many underclassmen last year. The biggest concern for the Applemen will be their staunch strength of schedule which may make or break their season.
“Our out-of-conference schedule, in my opinion, if it’s not one of the best in the state, maybe the best in the state.” Head coach Brian Thomas said. “We play Bridgeport, Morgantown, Wheeling Park, Parkersburg, and Sherando (Virginia) so that’s a tough out-of-conference schedule but we embrace it.”
While the path to 5 wins may not appear to be the clearest for Musselman, if the Applemen are able to reach the postseason, they will be among the most battle-tested teams in AAA.
Game to watch: Week 7 home to Hedgesville. This could end up being the 5th decisive win for either team.
Player to watch: Ray Adames. Adames finished 5th in the state track meet and has the shiftiness to match the speed. Get the ball in his hands and watch one of the best playmakers in the state go to work.
Expectation: Contend for a playoff spot.
Spring Mills (4-6) Last Season
Home Games: South Hagerstown (MD), Jefferson, Martinsburg, University
Road Games: Musselman, Washington, Hedgesville, Frankfort, North Hagerstown (MD), Albert Gallatin (PA)
Spring Mills went 4-6 last season but what may have been a tough season to swallow for Cardinals fans may turn out to be a blessing in the future. Max Anderson saw significant reps at quarterback as a freshman as did Keyon Mills who ended the season with over 1,000 all-purpose yards.
“He definitely got some reps and was composed last year with it.” Said 3rd-year head coach Josh Simms about Anderson. “He really didn’t miss a beat for a kid that age. You almost look at him at this point like he’s a veteran.”
While I would argue that the Cardinal’s window to be real contenders is not this year but rather the next two, they still are a solid offensive line away from making some serious sparks fly in the panhandle. Not bad for a program that’s played in 6 playoff games in just 9 years of existence.
Game to watch: Week 10 on the road against Albert Gallatin (PA). Spring Mills retains 2 of the 3 teams they beat last season (they had a forfeit as well) and need to turn close losses into victories to make the postseason. Last year they lost to AG 15-7.
Player to watch: Keyon Mills. Mills is fixing to be a household name statewide by the end of his high school career. The question is, in the short term, how will this running back/receiver hybrid stack up against EPAC teams as a sophomore.
Expectation: contend for a playoff spot. North Hagerstown and Albert Gallatin are both very winnable games late in the season, however, they are both on the road.
Hedgesville (4-6) Last Season
Home Games: Washington, Morgantown, Spring Mills, Friendship Collegiate (DC), Jefferson, Hampshire
Road Games: Warren County (VA), East Fairmont, Martinsburg, Musselman
Hedgesville was a touchdown away from beating Princeton and reaching the postseason for the first time in the Matt Faircloth era. This season, the Eagles return a lot of youth that got valuable reps last season. Their biggest strength should lie in their offensive line that features both Eli and Levi Faircloth. Hedgesville also boasts significant depth at receiver and believes they have the right guy in the backfield to replace Nathan Albright who had a spectacular senior season last year.
“He was a workhorse for us. In the Martinsburg game, he carried the ball 32 times.” Matt Faircloth said. “It’s hard to replace a workhorse but I think Kyle Whaley stepping up this year, we know what we’re getting in him. Pound for pound he’s one of the strongest kids in our program and he’s going to be lightning this year.”
For Hedgesville to make the postseason, they will have to make the most of their first 3 games (Washington, Warren County (VA), and East Fairmont. They also have the benefit of playing their final 3 games of the season at home.
Game to watch: Week 7 away to Warren County. Hedgesville won this game by just two points at home last season and now makes the return trip hoping to win again.
Player to watch: Tanner Matthews. Matthews is a 6’4 wideout who according to coach Faircloth had a massive offseason. He figures to be the top of many targets quarterback Jackson Ruest will have.
Expectation: A playoff team. For this to happen, Hedgesville will need to start 3-0 and beat a Washington team they have not beaten since 2018, but I feel year 3 under coach Faircloth will yield the most fruit. Going from a winless season to a 4 win season, a playoff berth seems like the next logical step for the Eagles.
Washington (5-5) Last Season
Home Games: Spring Mills, Frankfort, Martinsburg, Preston, Hampshire
Road Games: Hedgesville, Independence (VA), Park View Sterling (VA), Musselman, Jefferson
Washington was one of the RARE exceptions in class AAA last season finishing .500 and not making the postseason. They are without a doubt the most unique team in the panhandle with a very old-school style of offense.
“To say we run an old school offense is not doing it justice,” Coach Glen Simpson said. “We run a single wing that is of the mold of the old Notre Dames. Glen “Pop” Warner was running this offense. We’ve got to be different.”
The Patriots may not blow opponents away with lots of individual talent, but the culture coach Simpson is growing mixed with their unique style of play make them such a difficult team to prepare for.
Game to watch: Week 8 home to Preston AND week 9 away to Musselman. I know I Picked 2 here, apologies. These games were both wins last season and come at a very important time this upcoming season. They’re after Washington’s bye week and after their matchup with Martinsburg. 2 wins in these 2 games could help solidify another .500 record for the Patriots
Player to watch: Joe Vrobel. Vrobel may be Washinton’s quarterback this year but I am most excited to see him on the defensive side of the ball as a defensive back. Washington does not have an offense capable of high-scoring contests so they will have to rely on a no-nonsense defense to keep them in games.
Expectation: Contend for a playoff spot. What I like so much about this Washington team is their ability to compete against anyone with their unique style of play. If they can win at least 3 (if not 4) of their home games, there’s another ticket in the panhandle to be punched.
Jefferson (10-2) Last Season
Home Games: Sherando (VA), Musselman, North Hagerstown (MD), Martinsburg, Washington
Road Games: Millbrook (VA), Spring Mills, S. Hagerstown (MD), James Woods (VA),Hedgesville
Jefferson has epitomized the recent success of panhandle football more than anyone. The Cougars are coming off the most successful season in school history and are bursting at the seams with individual talent. However, they are also in a position no other team in the panhandle is in, they’re the only team that doesn’t return their starting quarterback. “Slingin” Sammy Roberts has moved on to the collegiate ranks at Shepherd. Roberts threw for over 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns last year for the 10-2 Cougars, and the quest for his replacement has not been completed.
“We’re still in a hot and heavy quarterback competition,” head coach Craig Hunter said. Junior Quinton Goin, sophomore Dylan Harich, and Senior Moses Talley all are proving to be solid choices to replace Roberts.
Jefferson retains the exact same schedule that netted them 9 regular season wins. The Cougars outscored their opponents 42.3-14.5 through last year’s first 10 games.
“We have a lot of athletic weapons out there, we just need to get the ball to them.” Hunter said. “Whether we hand it off or throw it to them and just let them get into space and work.”
There’s no denying the stable of talent the Cougars have at their disposal, only time will tell however if a new signal caller and a revamped offensive line can help maintain Jefferson’s current level of program success.
Game to watch: Week 1 away to Millbrook, VA. Millbrook scored the most points on Jefferson in the regular season (save Martinsburg). With Jefferson not poised to score as many points per game as a season ago, getting off to a strong start against an out-of-state team is the first step in trying to accomplish another 10-win season.
Players to watch: Evan Tewell, Noah Meehlieb. Apologies for picking 2 here. Tewell rushed for over 1,000 yards and 14 scores last year. While he may see more of a timeshare in carries this season he may prove to be the EPAC’s top rusher. Meehlieb logged an impressive 110 tackles last season and is proving to be one of the Panhandle’s most talented and versatile defenders.
Expectation: A top 4 team in AAA. Jefferson ran into an unfortunate buzzsaw in Bridgeport last year in the second round of the playoffs or else would have rematched with Martinsburg in the semi-finals with a spot in the Super 6 on the line. I expect them to gain similar notoriety in media polls this season and have a chance to be one of the final 4 teams remaining in West Virginia’s biggest class.
Martinsburg (13-1) Last Season
Home Games: Salem (VA), Musselman, Highland Springs (VA), Hedgesville, Riverside (OH)
Road games: Sherando (VA), Washington, Spring Mills, Jefferson, Bishop Ireton (VA)
Martinsburg is special. Try this stat on for size: over the last six seasons, they have 5 championships and only 2 losses. TOTAL loses. Not bad if you ask me. Britt Sherman has proved he can fill the shoes left by Dave Walker and then some. The Bulldogs have done their best to strengthen their nonconference schedule with five out-of-state opponents.
“It’s just trying to get our kids exposure and try to even work to a more regional and national level eventually with the type of games we play.” Sherman said, “I knew we were going to have a good senior class this year so I wanted to give them a good home slate. We open up with a Virginia 4A powerhouse I think they’ve been state champs, they’ve been to the semifinals the last 9 years in Salem, then we play Sherando who has been a 4A powerhouse in Virginia as well, but then that 4th game with Highland springs, they’re a 5A powerhouse and they rattled off 3 or 4 in a row and they don’t just send guys to college they send guys to the NFL.”
Martinsburg, to no surprise, is gushing with talent at every position. Last season the Bulldogs scored 50 or more points in 7 games and held opponents to seven points or less in six games. They return both quarterbacks, Ezra Bagent and Murphy Clement, and most of the names in a backfield that rushed for over 3,000 yards last year.
Game to watch: Week 4 home to Highland Springs, VA. Martinsburg has lost 2 games in the last 6 seasons both to a Spring Valley team that is no longer on the schedule. Highland Springs was a 1 point victory for Martinsburg last season on the road and figures to be the greatest game of individual talent played in the state of West Virginia this year.
Player to watch: Murphy Clement. It’s no question in anyone’s mind that Clement has the talent to play college ball, the question is: at what position? The junior has excelled as a passer, rusher, receiver, and defensive back and will be fun to watch in the black and orange this year.
Expectation: Championship #10. Fans may be surprised to know that it took Martinsburg 5 tries in the championship game to win their first but they haven’t looked back since. While I’m hesitant to predict an undefeated season for the Bulldogs facing such a tough nonconference slate, I expect to see them in their second home of Wheeling Island Stadium.