South Charleston coach John Messinger (center) puts his team through preseason drills on Thursday.
For a lot of schools, a 5-5 record and just missing the Class AAA playoffs could be considered a noble effort. At South Charleston, however, it's unacceptable.
"We got knocked down last year,'' said SC junior quarterback Jon Alexander, "and we're just trying to get back on our feet.''
The Black Eagles, who rang up back-to-back state championships in 2008-09 and reached the playoff semifinals in 2010, fell back to earth last year with a 5-5 record. They finished five bonus points out of the final postseason spot, which went to 5-5 Woodrow Wilson.
"That's not South Charleston football,'' said SC coach John Messinger. "That's not what we've come to appreciate here. [The playoffs] are where we want to be at the end of the year, and we narrowly missed it. Had a couple balls bounced our way, we'd have been there.
"Now that being said, 5-5 for this group with four returning starters in this conference, that's a pretty exceptional year for these kids. We could have easily been a 3-7, 2-8 football team. The kids realized they were going to have to dedicate themselves to something and work hard, and they did. It's a compliment to the youth of our team and also their ability to finish 5-5.''
Instead of sweeping that unsightly 5-5 record under the rug, South Charleston's players say they use it to inspire themselves for the coming season.
"I think we take it pretty much as motivation to do better this season,'' said senior lineman Dominic Orcutt, "and reflect on the mistakes we made and learn from our mistakes. A lot of us have worked a lot in the offseason because we don't want to go back down that road. Mainly, we use it as motivation instead of looking at it as something negative.''
Trevond Reese, a senior receiver-running back, played on the 2009 title team and has seen a lot of comings and goings in his tenure. He thinks the Black Eagles are ready to rise again.
"I was here when we were winning state championships,'' Reese said, "and last year was just a rebuilding year. We lost our Kennedy Award winner [quarterback Tyler Harris] and we lost a lot of our skills players who went to the next level.
"Last year, we brought in a sophomore quarterback to see what he could do. He did some good things and he did some bad things. But this year, everybody has a year under their belt and we're ready to show what we can do.''
The Black Eagles return starters at 14 positions, and are certainly well-stocked at the skill spots, starting with Alexander.
Despite not throwing downfield early in the year, Alexander finished with 1,067 yards and 14 touchdowns passing, and added 429 yards and four scores running the ball.
Reese (721 yards, five TDs) led the ground game even though he missed two contests, Ken Haynes added 407 yards and five scores and then-freshman A.D. Cunningham (271 yards, three TDs) also showed promise.
Three players with 10 or more receptions also return in Reese (22 catches, 351 yards, five TDs), Kevin Forrest (15 catches, 200 yards, three TDs) and Cunningham (10 catches, 57 yards, one TD).
"Everybody's working hard,'' Alexander said. "My linemen are unbelievable. They've turned around completely from last year. My backs and wide receivers, everybody's flying around, and we're all determined. It's just that we want to get back on a playoff run again.''
By most accounts, the Black Eagles' success may rest on how well they fill several vacant positions on their offensive and defensive lines.
"We may have had one of the best years of offseason work in the weight room that we've ever had,'' Messinger said. "Now we don't have a Blake Brooks, Austin Vickers or Wayne Wurster any more, but from tackle to tackle, physically, in the weight room, we may have the strongest team we've ever had. It's not weightlifting or powerlifting strong, it's football strong.
"They got that toughness back. We came out for the first time and hit [Tuesday] and I must have talked to them for 10 minutes about what toughness means for a South Charleston football player. The consensus feeling last year across the board was, 'What happened to the toughness?' We weren't tough, and that's mental. That's a mindset. I don't care if you're 6-foot-3 and 280 or 5-3 and 140. Tough is tough, and we lost that last year. I know a lot of that's because of the inexperience, but with these kids I think you'll see that South Charleston grit back this year.''
Prior to last year's playoff miss, SC had won 40 of its previous 43 games - and one of those losses came by forfeit. Certainly a hard act to follow, but this year's squad thinks it can draw off that storied past.
"I think we can use those expectations to try and stay up to them,'' Orcutt said, "instead of stay below them. Because we want to be looked at highly, and want people to have high expectations because we have high expectations for ourselves.''
Messinger boiled it down even more.
"They have that chip on their shoulder again,'' he said. "They've got that hunger.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com