Independence coach John H. Lilly knew from the start that he would be fielding a young team this fall. Among the youngest units was going to be the offensive line.
All five starters from the 2019 season were seniors, so starting underclassmen this fall was inevitable. But that youth has not been a hindrance. In fact, it's one of the biggest reasons the Patriots are in the Class AA state playoffs for the first time since 2016.
And Lilly is not taking the credit.
"It's been a great coaching job by Coach Grogg," Lilly said of veteran coach Kevin Grogg, who handles the offensive line. "We lost all five starters from the previous year and we had to replace them all. We've got literally three sophomores, a junior and a senior on there, and they have done nothing but get better every game. I'm very, very proud of them.
"We're still nowhere where we need to be, but we're not where we were."
That's true of the amount of improvement made from the preseason until now, but can also be reflective of the difference between this November and the Novembers of the last three seasons.
The No. 14 Patriots are in the postseason for the first time in Lilly's three seasons as head coach. They technically got their first win last week, although not in the fashion anyone wants.
Independence (5-2) received a forfeit in the playoffs' first round last week after Frankfort was unable to play due to Covid-19 restrictions. That sent the Patriots to the quarterfinals for the first time since the playoff field was expanded to 16 teams in 1991.
They will play their first game in three weeks Friday night when they travel to No. 6 Fairmont. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
The Patriots have had to rely on several underclassmen throughout the season. Up front, that has included sophomore tackles Logan Isom (6-foot-4, 285 pounds) and Aaron Shiflett (6-0, 255) and sophomore center Brady Grimmett (5-11, 263).
They will be joined Friday night by junior guard Michael Cheeks (6-1, 255) and senior guard Houston Shrewsbury (5-11, 200).
Shrewsbury has provided what Lilly calls "servant leadership" as the unit's lone senior.
"Our three seniors have just been marvelous this year," Lilly said, referring also to quarterback Isaiah Duncan and running back Cohen Miller. "We were so young, a lot of our kids didn't have a way to get to practice because we only had half of them at school half the time (due to blended learning) there at the beginning of the year and they don't drive. So our seniors would pick them up, bring them to practice.
"I call it 'servant leadership.' I think that sometimes is one of the better leaders and that's what he is. He's a servant leader. He played all last year with an injury and didn't get to play a lot. But he got his shot and he did his best with it."
Of course, their two biggest jobs have been to protect Duncan and to make sure junior Atticus Goodson has room to run the ball. They have been successful on both fronts.
Duncan has completed 33 of 56 passes for 884 yards and 10 touchdowns, and is the team's second-leading rusher with 219 yards and three touchdowns.
Goodson, meanwhile, has followed up his big sophomore season with another big year. In seven games, Goodson has rushed for 1,506 yards (215.1 yards per game) and 24 touchdowns. He is averaging 11.3 yards per carry.
Goodson also has six receptions for 122 yards and a touchdown. He is the state's third-leading scorer with 156 points.
Sophomore Judah Price (19-203, 2 TDs) and Miller (26-156, 4 TDs) have also been threats running the ball.
Duncan's top four targets, including Goodson, have combined for 32 of the team's 34 completions, led by Cyrus Goodson (12 for 392, 6 TDs). Price has eight catches for 203 yards and a score, and freshman Trey Bowers has six receptions for 170 yards and two TDs.
The focal point for the Independence defense against Fairmont is obvious.
Quarterback Gage Michael is having a Kennedy Award-type season. The 6-1, 195-pound senior has completed 111 of 188 passes (59 percent) for 1,877 yards and 26 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He also leads the team in rushing by a considerable margin with 1,310 yards and 15 touchdowns.
"He's one of the better players in the state for sure," Lilly said. "He's got a lot of talent around him."
Michael spreads the ball around, but Evan Dennison and Kie Cottingham have combined for 50 receptions and 729 yards. Dennison has six touchdowns, and Alex Brophy (13-437) leads the team eight.
Fairmont played in three straight state title games from 2016-2018, beating Bluefield for the championship in 2018. The Polar Bears have been in the playoffs eight consecutive seasons and 11 of the last 13.
"The biggest thing they have is experience," Lilly said. "Their kids will be used to the big games. We're young and we're trying to gain that experience. I think our kids are excited about playing."
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