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Webster County football back in playoff mix

BRAD DAVIS | Register-Herald
Linebacker Levi Hardway (left) has been one of Webster County’s top tacklers each of the last two seasons.

It’s been a while since Webster County was involved in playoff talk, but any mention of the postseason right now has to include the Highlanders.

Webster, off to a 3-0 start, stands in a tie for fifth place in the SSAC Class A playoff ratings. The Highlanders are seeking their first postseason spot in football since they were a Class AA program in 2008.

They flirted with the playoffs last year, going 6-4 and finishing No. 22 in the ratings, six spots out of a berth. It marked Webster’s first winning record since 2008 and perhaps set the stage for this year’s quick start.

The Highlanders have certainly kept fans on the edge of their seats so far, picking up two tight wins — 26-21 against Richwood in their opener and 34-33 last week against Tyler Consolidated, scoring the winning touchdown and 2-point conversion with 3:38 left in the game. Their other victory was 34-7 over Ravenswood.

“This is a nice group right now,’’ said veteran coach B.J. Phillips, who’s in the third season of his latest stint with the Highlanders.

“A lot of them have been together since middle school, where they had a pretty good team. But it’s not just those kids. We’ve blended it in with seniors who weren’t part of that. We’ve got 35, 36 kids, and we’re pleased with that number. We have some speed. Some of our track kids are also football players and we’ve been able to take advantage of that in some instances.’’

Several players have stood out, including junior running back Luke Hardway (5-foot-10, 185 pounds), who has carried 54 times for 341 yards and six touchdowns. It was his unrelenting effort on the 2-point conversion that beat Tyler.

“They really blew the play up,’’ Phillips said of Tyler’s defense, “and Hardway made a good individual effort to get in.

“He’s a special kid. He’s a three-year starter and was 135 two years ago, and now he’s 185. We want to get the ball in his hands.’’

Some other top players include:

n Junior quarterback Dorian Groggs has completed 18 of 30 passes for 286 yards and one touchdown. “He came out this year, and is a terrific athlete,’’ Phillips said. “He has aspirations of playing college basketball. He’s just a player; the lights come on, and he can run it or throw it.’’

n Sophomore slotback-cornerback Reece Nutter had three catches for 159 yards against Tyler, including a 64-yard TD reception. He returned a fumble 61 yards for a score at Ravenswood. “There’s not a better performer on both sides of the ball,’’ Phillips said. “He’s just a really fast, tough kid and we try to get him the ball.’’

n Senior running back Dustin Williams has run for two scores and brought back an interception for a TD against Ravenswood.

Perhaps it’s been so long since Webster County was in the playoff mix that some of its players are still getting used to the feeling of being in crunch time of close games.

“We’ve had to remind them that we haven’t been in those kinds of games,’’ Phillips said, “and those are the kind of games you want to be in. Now here we are. We were down one point at halftime the other night, and they acted like they were already beat. So we’re still trying to learn how [to handle it] sometimes.

“We’ve been struggling a little bit defensively, which is surprising to me because we’ve got quick, fast, hard-nosed kids who like contact. We’ll try to clear that up a little bit. But so far, the season’s come down to a few plays here and there that could have gone either way. We were down two scores [against Tyler], and the kids hung in there.’’

Phillips recognizes how far his team has come at this point, but feels like the Highlanders have a ways to go before they can start talking playoffs.

“We’re kind of taking it one step at a time,’’ he said, “and we feel like this is the first part. Not disrespecting anyone, but we felt the first part of our schedule was the difficult part, and we lost three of those five games last year. We’ve taken care of one of those losses to Tyler, and now we have to prepare for another in Notre Dame. Then we turn around and play Summers County, who’s dominated us every time we’ve stepped on the field.

“If we’re a top-10 team, we need to practice like that. That’s what we’ve been stressing, just to try to improve. We felt we didn’t play very well in a lot of our game last Friday.’’

Webster’s last playoff game was a 46-22 loss to Ravenswood in the 2008 Class AA opening round. The Highlanders dropped to Class A status in 2016.

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickRyanWV.

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