One of the attractions of the WCHS-TV 8 Fox-11 North-South Classic is the chance to watch players from all levels competing on the same field.
Players from the large Class AAA powers line up alongside athletes from much smaller schools, and often those Class AA and Class A players do pretty well for themselves.
Heck, twice in the past six years a Class A player has taken home team MVP honors — Connor Arlia of Madonna for the North in 2011 and Kane Roush of Wahama for the South in 2014.
One of the bigger upsets in the series came in 1999 when quarterback Brent Metheny from Class A Moorefield threw two touchdown passes to pick up his team’s MVP award as the North knocked off the South 19-8.
But you don’t have to sell the virtues of small-school athletes to one player for the South in this year’s game, which took place Saturday night at University of Charleston Stadium. Grant Safford knows all about it — and learned it the hard way.
Safford, a top-notch football and wrestling talent at Point Pleasant, competed as a Class AAA athlete up until his senior year, when the Big Blacks dropped back down to double-A status following the SSAC’s latest round of reclassifications.
And in each of his two sports, Safford saw his senior seasons come up short of his junior year accomplishments:
n As the No. 2 playoff seed, the Big Blacks reached the AAA football semifinals in 2015 with Safford and Marshall signee Cody Mitchell manning the backfield, losing to eventual state champion Wheeling Park. However, with 10 seniors returning the following season, Point lost to James Monroe in the AA quarterfinals.
n In wrestling, Safford captured the Class AAA weight-class title at 182 pounds as a junior, but the next season he lost in the 182 finals in Class AA-A.
So you don’t have to tell Safford that double-A athletes can hold their own with the big boys in AAA.
“In football, it’s hard to gauge the two like that in aspects,’’ Safford said. “There’s a lot of hard-nosed football players in [double-A], but also in triple-A there’s a lot of speed. Just more coverages and stuff you have to go by instead of more run-based teams.
“We were definitely overconfident this past year as a team — and not as a coaching staff. They tried to prepare us for every game, but a lot of the kids just had it in their heads that we should already be in the finals, but that’s not how it works out. That’s not how it happens. We lost Cody Mitchell, who was a heck of a player, but we didn’t really have a good game that night.’’
Likewise, his senior season in wrestling proved that dropping a class doesn’t guarantee automatic success.
After placing second in the AAA state meet at 195 pounds as a sophomore and winning the AAA crown at 182 the following year, Safford had the misfortune of running into an eventual four-time state champion when Point relocated into the combined AA-A division in wrestling.
Jacob Hart of Independence shaded Safford 6-4 in the Class AA-A 182 finals last winter, wrapping up his fourth state crown.
“We were both in the same weight class [at the start of the season],’’ Safford said, “and it’s one of those pride things. You don’t want to be the one who moves. And it wasn’t like it was tougher or anything, it’s just that the guys at the top [in AA-A] are just as good as the top in triple-A, and there’s more of the better guys than in triple-A. There’s just more kids.’’
Last season, 29 schools competed in the Class AAA postseason, while a staggering 67 took part in the combined AA-A division.
And by the way, Hunter DeLong of Parkersburg South, the wrestler Safford beat in the AAA 182 finals in 2016, returned to the same weight class last season and won a championship in AAA. Safford, meanwhile, went 135-8 over his final three wrestling seasons with one title and two runner-ups, and was 169-25 overall.
Safford got one more chance to go out on the winning side in Saturday’s North-South contest, where he primarily played linebacker, but also got some snaps as a running back. He’s a two-time 1,500-yard rusher at Point Pleasant, and ranks second only to Mitchell in career rushing yards with 4,095 and 53 touchdowns.
If his name and Mason County background look somewhat familiar, it’s because his grandfather is Steve Safford, who served as Point Pleasant’s football coach for 32 years before stepping down following the 2006 season.
Grant Safford is proud to carry on the tradition that name represents in his community, but realizes it comes with expectations.
“You have to live up to a standard,’’ he said. “You can’t be doing anything because anything little thing that you do, it’s looked on discriminately. Basically, you have to abide by everything because you try to keep it easy-going and just making everyone happy.’’