By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
The road to Wheeling goes through New Richmond tonight at 7:30 p.m. as Class AA No. 11 Nicholas County (8-2) travels south to Wyoming County to take on the No. 6 Wyoming East Warriors (9-1) in a battle of local powers hoping to advance to the second round of the WVSSAC playoffs.
How they got here: Nicholas County comes into the game riding a wave of defensive domination and offensive command. Since losing to Class AAA Oak Hill 47-17 in Week 4, the Grizzlies’ defense has only allowed 14 points, none of them coming against their first-team squad. Conversely, the Nicholas County offense has scored 240 points during the same time period.
Perhaps the biggest showing for the Grizzlies defense happened in the first game of the season, when Nicholas County held a Greenbrier West team that is averaging 38.8 points per game, scoreless in a 6-0 loss.
The Grizzlies went on to defeat Class AA No. 13 Robert C. Byrd 24-0 and Lincoln County 41-0.
Wyoming East was a heartbreaker away from a perfect season, giving up a touchdown to Summers County late in the game for its lone loss (17-14) of the season.
Since that defeat, the Warriors have been on a mission, dismissing their next six opponents, including three straight victories over Raleigh County’s Shady Spring (27-6), Independence (42-14) and Liberty (42-6).
“We took that game and looked at some of the little things we did wrong and corrected them,” Wyoming East coach Gary Poindexter said. “We just learned from it and moved forward in a real positive way.”
Perhaps the signature victory on the Wyoming East schedule, much like Nicholas County, happened in Week 1, when it defeated Class AA No. 9 Mingo Central 27-26. The Warriors followed that up by reclaiming the Golden Shovel against Westside, 35-6, using a tough defense to hold Class AA’s leading rusher Mike Mullens to only 87 yards.
Players to watch: The Grizzlies are lead into battle on the back of powerful running back Will Mayes, who has rushed for 941 yards and 17 touchdowns on 150 carries. Nicholas County also has three more running backs with triple-digit rushing yards with Tyler Sargraves (394 yards, 4 touchdowns), Andrew Woods (249 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Austin Riffle (230 yards and 1 touchdown) to balance the attack.
Sargraves, the Nicholas County quarterback, has a 54.2 completion percentage, throwing for more than 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, the majority of which have found Mayes (277 yards, 3 touchdowns). Joe Amendola, Jared Price and Jacob Hopkins also have more than 200 yards receiving and provide another weapon for the Grizzlies offense.
“They’re a solid team all around,” Poindexter added. “They’ve got a good quarterback, good running backs and a very good defense. They remind us alot of ourselves on film. They try to do the same things we do with the way they run it and throw it.”
Wyoming East brings its own set of weapons to the fight.
Junior quarterback Aaron Griffith has impressed many this season, throwing for 796 yards, the majority of which have been directed at senior all-stater Christian Hedinger, who has caught 41 passes for 639 yards.
The Warrior passing game is opened up by a balanced run scheme that features four running backs with more than 300 yards rushing.
Senior fullback Coty Bishop carries on the tradition of strong Wyoming East running backs with 593 yards. He shares the load with fellow senior Jacob Summe (477 yards), Griffith (369 yards) and Brian Whitt (310 yards).
The battle will likely be won in the trenches as a tough Grizzlies defense will do battle with a strong Warrior offensive line, lead by 5-foot-9, 300 pound Ryan Cantrell and 6-foot-3, 318 pound Jordan Jedra.
We’re back: The game means a return to the playoffs for both teams. Nicholas County, making its first appearance in the Class AA playoffs since 1977, defeated Ritchie County 31-7 in the opening round a year ago, its first postseason victory, before falling to eventual champion Wayne 47-0 in the second round.
Prior to the Grizzlies return to Class AA, they had been a regular in recent years in Class AAA, making four straight appearances between 2007 and 2011.
The Warriors also made an appearance in the 2012 playoffs, losing to Scott 46-16 in the first round.
Wyoming East has made the playoffs a regular occurrence since becoming a school in 1998, following the consolidation of Mullens and Pineville high schools. It won the 1999 championship in a 57-21 victory over Bluefield. This season marks the eighth time they have made the postseason.
“It’s been big for us to be able to carry on that tradition,” Poindexter added. “To go from a couple losing seasons a few years back, and a 5-5 season, to hosting a home playoff game — that’s just awesome.”