Keyser brings shutdown defense to Wheeling
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wayne put up one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the entire season in last week's Class AA semifinals against Robert C. Byrd.
The Pioneers limited RCB to just 55 yards of total offense in an 18-0 victory. The Eagles entered the game averaging 41 points and hadn't been held under 21 in any game.
Keyser's defense, however, has pretty much been doing that all year.
The Golden Tornado has given up points and yardage grudgingly no matter the opponent, allowing only 15 touchdowns in 13 games.
Wayne coach Tom Harmon has been impressed with what he's seen of the Golden Tornado defense as he scouts game videos.
"I think first and foremost, it's unbelievable effort,'' Harmon said. "They're very comfortable with what they do and they kind of have a passion to get to the football. Rarely do you see them out of position to make a play when it comes time to make a tackle.
"Very few teams around play as good and fundamental football as Keyser does. They're sure tacklers, which is a sign of being well schooled. No. 2, when it's time to make a play, they don't falter. They get the guy on the ground with the effort they put forth - usually with more than one [tackler] helping. That's the kind of defense that gets you to this time of year.''
Keyser coach Sean Biser knows that the acid test awaits his stout defense this weekend, since the Pioneers average 51.1 points and 502.4 total yards.
"Most definitely, this is the biggest challenge we've faced with our defense,'' Biser said. "We've played well against quality opponents, but Wayne is another level than everybody else. You can't go with what they have expecting to put up what we put up defensively.''
Potentially the hottest topic at this year's Super Six has been the health of Wayne's top two running backs, Brandon Spurlock and Mason Hodge, each of whom has been nursing a leg injury.
Spurlock, with 1,859 yards and 25 TDs on the ground, didn't play at all in last week's win over RCB, and Hodge played most of the game on defense only, getting in for one play by accident on offense.
So what's their status for Friday?
"If people are guessing,'' Harmon said, "it's not because of anything anybody at Wayne said - because in all honesty, they're guessing. We fully expect them to play, but neither one is definitely healed. Of course, with all the attention given to the championship game, everybody wants to be out there.''
Biser said he expects to see both Spurlock and Hodge carrying the ball Friday night.
"That's who we're going to see,'' Biser said. "That's who we prepared for. It's the state championship game and I have no doubt that both kids will be playing against us.''
Viewers with a sharp eye watching the game telecast might see several Wayne players wearing "KHS'' on tape around their wrists or ankles, but it's not a motivational ploy aimed at Keyser High School.
The bearing of those initials is in memory of Kristen Haley Stiltner, a Wayne High School student and athlete who was killed in an auto accident during Memorial Day weekend last May.
Stiltner, who played basketball and volleyball for the Pioneers, would have been a senior this school year and was a big fan of the football team. She was in the stands at Wheeling Island Stadium last December for the AA title game against Point Pleasant.
So how long has it been since Keyser played for a state football title?
Well, Richard Nixon was president and Led Zeppelin was just forging its way into the world of rock 'n' roll. The year was 1969.
That's the year Keyser shaded Winfield 21-20 for the Class AA crown, and the Golden Tornado hasn't been back to the finals since.
Wayne, meanwhile, is one of those teams that seem to be building a wing at Wheeling Island Stadium. The Pioneers are making their sixth trip to the Super Six since 2000.
Biser realizes his program is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to knowing what to expect at the big show.
"It's something we've talked to our players about,'' he said, "and I definitely think it gives Wayne the upper hand with a little bit of experience about what goes on up there, to have that under their belts.
"We've talked to our kids about tightening up and not making it a bigger deal than what it is. It's a football game, and we'll see what happens. We're definitely trying to prepare them for that.''
Harmon, meanwhile, doesn't feel like his program's knowledge of the Super Six setting and the bright lights will amount to all that much.
"In all honesty, it wears off when the game starts,'' Harmon said. "People like to talk about our great amount of experience there, but one of the better times we ever played up there was the first time we went [a 14-6 loss to Bridgeport in 2000].
"Both teams will play with great emotion and play hard. Knowing what's there is not going to be much of a factor in the game.''
Keyser plans to leave today, get in a practice at Island Stadium and spend the night before Friday's game in Wheeling.
"I thought it would be better if we had fresh legs,'' Biser said, "rather than drive up [Friday] and play.''
His players, however, didn't want to ride in style for the lengthy trip. Biser said they demanded to arrive at the Super Six site in Mineral County school buses.
"That's their mentality,'' Biser said. "They're not babied. They feel like they need to ride school buses. In fact, they told me if I get a charter bus, they'd refuse to ride it.''
A few AA quick kicks:
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.