ONA — Cabell Midland’s linebackers might as well have been defensive linemen last week, with all lining up within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The goal was to stop Spring Valley’s powerful running game. The strategy was a success, as the Timberwolves were held to 117 yards on the ground in a 31-0 loss to Midland in the Class AAA prep football playoff semifinals.
When it came time for Spring Valley to pass, however, the linebacking corps adjusted. Palmer Riggio expertly timed a throw, intercepted it and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.
A veteran group, led by seniors Tierden Berry and twin brothers Cooper Hardman and Parker Hardman, head a defense that gives up a mere 12.2 points per game. The unit will be tested by a Martinsburg offense that averages 62 points per contest when the teams meet for the Class AAA state championship at noon Saturday at Wheeling island Stadium.
“Our hard work has paid off,” Parker Hardman said. “We’re going to keep doing what we do. It’s what got us this far.”
“This far” is a 13-0 record, a Mountain State Athletic Conference championship and a No. 2 rating heading into the game with the top-seeded Bulldogs (13-0), the three-time defending state champion.
The Knights have overachieved, or at least outplayed expectations. Even some of Cabell Midland’s players said they are as surprised as they are delighted to play for a state title.
“I thought we’d be average,” Cooper Hardman said. “We’ve overcome a lot. All the injuries we had and such, it’s awesome.”
Not that an average Knights team is bad. Cabell Midland hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2010, the year before head coach Luke Salmons took over the Knights. In 2012, Salmons coached his team to the state championship game, where it lost to Martinsburg 38-14. That was one of seven state titles the Bulldogs have won in the last nine years.
“Growing up, I never thought I’d be playing in a state championship game,” Berry said. “It’s hard to get there. We’re ready to go show the state what we have.”
Martinsburg, meanwhile, has been penciled in to the finals since the moment it beat Spring Valley in last year’s championship game. The Bulldogs feature a different style than the Timberwolves. Martinsburg plays a spread offense that creates gaping holes for speedy running backs and takes advantage of the short passing game of the West Coast offense to nullify a defense’s pass rush.
“We’ve seen the spread before,” Berry said. “Martinsburg is really good. We have to stay disciplined and not have penalties. We have to play as we always have.”