For a second straight year, Nitro carries motivation when it kicks off its season.
The Wildcats again open with games against their two biggest rivals — neighboring schools Poca and St. Albans — right off the bat.
It remains to be seen if Nitro has the production to match that motivation.
The Wildcats begin their second season in the Class AA Cardinal Conference when they tackle visiting Poca on Aug. 25. That was their only win last year as they finished the season with a nine-game losing streak.
Bryce Casto, who begins his third season as Nitro coach when practice opens around West Virginia on Monday, knows exactly what his team must do to take that next step.
The first thing on the agenda is filling out the offensive line, which lost four of five starters from last year. Only junior Will Dean returns, and he moves from center to guard.
“Our key this year is going to be replacing the offensive line,’’ Casto said. “We had a good mix of players we lost to graduation, so replacing them is going to be our biggest priority.’’
A close second to the O-line is to improve on defense after allowing 44.4 points per game last year. Junior defensive tackle Behren Franks returns from the front line.
“To make our jump to get where we’re going,’’ Casto said, “we’ve got to get better on defense this season. We’re determined to be able to get people on the ground. If we make improvements there, we’ll make a jump. If we continue to struggle on defense, well, then we’re going to have to be pretty good on offense.’’
The Wildcats have some proven parts returning at the offensive skill positions, names like quarterback Kenny Caruthers, receiver Jay Poindexter, running back Nick Reip, slotback Jason Douglas and receiver Corey Rogers.
Caruthers saw extensive playing time the past three seasons behind Jamie Buckalew, completing 83 of 164 passes for 702 yards and three touchdowns with nine interceptions, and has also run for three scores. Buckalew was fourth in the conference in passing last year with 1,573 yards.
“He’s played a lot for us the last couple years,’’ Casto said of Caruthers, “and we feel like we’re in good hands there. We’re working on just trying to improve our scheme, and we need to pick up where we left off in June.’’
Reip ended as Nitro’s leading rusher last year, even though he was the featured running back for only the final two games. He turned in 190 yards and two TDs in those two starts, and finished with 309 yards on the ground. As a receiver, he caught 18 passes for 156 yards and two scores.
“He’s a tremendous ballplayer,’’ Casto said, “a four-year starter and a really good outside linebacker, too. He’ll play in college, no question.’’
Poindexter was selected to the All-Cardinal Conference first team after catching 31 passes for 508 yards and four TDs last year. Douglas had 16 receptions for 186 yards and a score.
Rogers, meanwhile, missed 7 1/2 games last year with an injury, but certainly left his mark, as his only three catches all resulted in touchdowns — plays of 86, 65 and 20 yards against three different opponents.
“He’s an interesting young man,’’ Casto said. “He scores early in the second game against St. Albans and was pushed from behind as the crosses the goal line, falls and breaks his arm. We get him back in limited duty for the last game against Wayne and he catches a TD pass there. I don’t think I’ll ever hear of someone do that again or see it again. We hope he has good health this year.’’
Casto said his players have done what he’s asked in the off-season, and is ready to get going.
“We’ve had a good off-season and I’m really proud of the kids,’’ Casto said. “What I feel about our team and their work ethic has been tremendous. I’m excited. It’s been very enjoyable.’’
And with his program’s two biggest rivals looming in a month, who can blame him for being optimistic?
“We’ve got Poca and St. Albans Weeks 1 and 2,’’ Casto said. “It’s good the way it works out. Forever and day, that’s the way it’ll be at Nitro.’’
Patient at Point
When you’re playing behind the program’s top two all-time rushing leaders, you’re not going to get a lot of looks.
That’s why Point Pleasant coach David Darst is pleased that some members of this year’s senior class have stuck with it, and look ready to blossom in their final seasons.
Now that running backs Cody Mitchell (2016 graduate) and Grant Safford (2017 graduate) have moved on, Darst is expecting bigger contributions on offense from running backs Justin Brumfield and Alec Smith and slotback Keshawn Stover.
“We’ve been blessed with some talented kids in recent years,’’ Darst said, “and when you have Cody Mitchell and Grant Safford in front of you, you just have to be patient. Some of these other guys have waited their turn.
“Offensively, we feel real good about our team other than losing Grant and a couple linemen. The majority of the offense is back, and we’re real happy with that. We went 24-3 in 7 on 7s this summer.’’
Smith, whose father was a 1,000-yard rusher for Point in the 1980s, played mostly defense last year.
“Chase Walton [who played from 2010-13] was kind of like him,’’ Darst said of Smith. “He didn’t really get to shine until his senior year because he had some really good running backs in front of him.’’
Brumfield ran for 256 yards and five TDs in limited duty last year, and Stover caught 29 passes for 589 yards and nine scores.
n No team in the AA Cardinal Conference has more than two home or away games in consecutive weeks, though both Mingo Central (Sept. 15-Oct. 6) and Poca (Sept. 29-Oct. 20) have three home games in a four-week stretch, including their bye weeks.
n For the fifth straight year, no scrimmages during the Aug. 18-19 Mountain State Athletic Conference Grid-o-rama match teams that meet in the regular season.
n According to SSAC site, only two teams in the state have nine-game schedules this season — Hundred and Van, both in Class A.