— by Riley Griffith

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION, W.Va. — The sixth-seeded Jefferson Cougars turned to their defense Friday night to secure a second straight appearance in a Class AAA quarterfinal with a 21-14 victory over No. 11 Wheeling Park in the opening round of the WVSSAC 2023 High School football playoffs presented by Toyota.

After a three-and-out from Wheeling Park on its first drive, Jefferson needed only two plays to score as junior tailback Tay’Shaun Roper broke off a 90-yard touchdown run to put the Cougars up 7-0.

Wheeling Park missed a 31-yard field goal later in the first while Jefferson had trouble moving the football after the big Roper run. The second quarter was all Wheeling Park as the Patriots held the football for close to 9 straight minutes and capped it off by scoring their first touchdown of the night from sophomore tailback Amare Johnson.

With the game tied at 7, the Patriots sent a short and high kickoff to wideout Jackson Rockwell, who broke off a 56-yard return and got the Cougars inside the Wheeling Park 10-yard line. However, JHS failed to capitalize and at halftime, the game remained tied at 7.

In the third quarter, both teams moved the ball efficiently, but points remained at a premium. The first play of the fourth quarter saw the Cougars take advantage of a lapse in coverage from Wheeling Park as quarterback Dylan Harich found an open Damarius Wallace for a 36-yard receiving touchdown to put Jefferson back on top by a touchdown.

“We had actually called a run play and Wallace was waving his hand saying nobody was overtop on him.” Jefferson head coach Craig Hunter said.”  Dylan happened to see it and threw it to him. We didn’t see it until right before the ball was snapped so we were screaming at him, but we didn’t want to bring attention to it.”

Wheeling Park and Jefferson traded punts after that score, before the Cougars added to their lead courtesy of a defensive score. 

With the Patriots facing second-and-7, Patriots’ quarterback Aiden Davis looked to make a sideline throw that was read and intercepted by Roper, who took it back 46 yards for a TD.

“The X-factor in tonight’s game was us getting big plays,” said Hunter. “The pick six at the end and the miscue in coverage on Wheeling Park’s end that we took advantage of. We played well and got stops when we needed them on fourth down.”

Trailing by 14, Park continued to battle and Johnson finished up a Patriots drive with his second rushing touchdown of the night to cut the visitors’ deficit in half. 

The Patriots attempted an onside kick, but the Cougars’ Dylan Harich recovered to clinch his team’s first-round win.

Jefferson won’t have to travel far next week in the quarterfinals as it takes on Eastern Panhandle Athletic Conference rival Martinsburg. The Bulldogs topped the Cougars 57-14 in their regular season matchup.