Mark Mason is now “one of the guys’’ in the MSAC.
Mason’s first official function after being approved as head coach at Capital Wednesday evening was participating in the Mountain State Athletic Conference’s football media day Thursday afternoon at Little Creek Park in South Charleston.
With the start of the season just days away, coaches or representatives from all 10 league schools gave short presentations on their teams during the event sponsored by Wally’s & Wimpy’s Sports Digest. Preseason practice begins in West Virginia on Monday.
Mason, who has been an assistant coach with the Cougars since 1999, takes over for Jon Carpenter, who took Capital to the Class AAA playoffs nine times in 11 years, including a state title in 2014. Mason had been serving as acting head coach during the three-week summer practice period before he finally got the OK Thursday from the Kanawha County Board of Education.
“This is all new to me,’’ Mason said Thursday. “This is my first year and I’m actually picking up the pieces from Coach Carp’s departure ... I’m excited to get the ball rolling and get back to normal.’’
Normal didn’t describe the Cougars’ COVID-shortened 2020 season, which ended after just three games with a 1-2 record — the program’s first losing season since 2002 and first non-playoff season since 2011. In the MSAC preseason poll that was revealed Thursday, Capital was voted eighth by league coaches, ahead of only Riverside and St. Albans. The tightly bunched top three in the poll were Cabell Midland (88 points), South Charleston (87) and Spring Valley (85).
Mason spent part of Thursday’s media day acquainting and reacquainting himself with the other MSAC coaches. Capital was the only conference team to change coaches from last year.
“I’ve seen some of you on Friday nights before,’’ Mason said, “and some of them have been pleasant and some of them have been unpleasant. But that’s just the way it is.
“I enjoy taking over this program. Jon Carpenter has taught me a lot and he is really and truly going to be missed. I’m just excited to get started and see what happens. I know we’re guaranteed to play 10 games, and we’re going to compete in all 10 games.’’
Mason mentioned players on either side of the ball who will be playing key roles for the Cougars. On offense, they include quarterback JacQai Long, running back Shawn James and receivers Trenton Tiggle, Brayden Slack and Nadir Price. On defense, it’s lineman Za’shawn Davis, linebacker Tanner Burnette and cornerback Demarcus Daniels. Mason also said as many as four freshmen could start.
“I told them this is not middle school football — this is high school football,’’ Mason said, “and you’re playing against grown men, and it gets real on Friday night. Other than that, our kids have had a great attitude and they’ve come out and been very receptive of me.’’
Here are quick looks at the other league teams in order of the preseason poll, including last year’s records:
- Cabell Midland (5-0): The Knights earned the No. 1 seed for the AAA playoffs, but never got in a postseason game due to COVID.
They lost their top four rushers from last season, but return some talent for their option attack in Jackson Fetty, Mason Moran, Ray Ray Williams, Julion Grace and fullback Cannon Lewis.
“We lost some key kids from last year,’’ said 11th-year coach Luke Salmons of his running backs, “but at the same time, we’ve got some really good kids coming back, and it’s their chance to play. We feel very confident in the kids we’ve got playing there.’’
In what amounted to a warning for the rest of the MSAC, Salmons also pointed out that “our offensive and defensive lines will be the best we’ve ever had ... we’re excited up front on both sides of the ball.’’
- South Charleston (6-0): The Black Eagles were awarded the state title last year after they were the only AAA team left standing following the playoff quarterfinals.
“Certainly, we would have preferred that things played out on the field,’’ said Bryce Casto, SC athletic director, “but we still celebrate the season. The good thing is we have most of our team back for two more seasons. It’s outstanding where we’re at.’’
On offense, SC is led by junior quarterback Trey Dunn, who set a school record by averaging 310.8 passing yards per game. Mondrell Dean, at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, is a Division I talent on the defensive line.
“He’s probably as good in terms of closing on the ball as any defensive player I’ve ever seen,’’ Casto said. “An unbelievable player.’’
Casto, subbing for vacationing head coach Donnie Mays, also lauded the Black Eagles linemen.
“Overall as a team,’’ Casto said, “the biggest jump we made last season was in our offensive and defensive lines ... it’s now one of our strongest areas.’’
- Spring Valley (4-1): The home schedule for the Timberwolves this season will be perhaps the most attractive in the state. Five of the six home dates come against Martinsburg, Fairmont Senior, Midland, SC and Hurricane — teams that were a combined 29-5 last year.
The Wolves return seven starters on defense, and welcomed a solid transfer in Ty Bartrum, a defensive back-receiver who moves in from New Jersey after his father, former Marshall and NFL tight end Mike Bartrum, joined the MU coaching staff.
Important cogs on offense will be tight end Corbin Page, a WVU commit, and Jace Caldwell, who moves from receiver to running back and also plays free safety.
- Huntington (3-6): The Highlanders got in more games than anyone else in the MSAC last year, which proved vital, according to coach Billy Seals.
“We felt it was very important to get our young guys a lot of games,’’ Seals said. “We needed experience. We played a ton of sophomores last year and some juniors who had only played in the [junior varsity] program. We feel like it pays dividends for us this season.’’
Gavin Lochow returns at quarterback and operates behind a line that starts four seniors and a sophomore.
“Anytime you’ve got your quarterback back in this league,’’ Seals said, “you feel good about it, and we feel like he’s a very good dual-threat quarterback.’’
The Highlanders also return nine starters on defense.
- George Washington (3-2): The overall number of players on the roster is down in the 40s for the Patriots, but on the flip side, many of the younger athletes appear game-ready.
“We may have a lot more kids contribute on Friday nights than we normally do,’’ said assistant coach Scott Tinsley. “Our depth is going to be good, but we don’t have a lot of young kids underneath that because the young kids will be playing.’’
Vying to take over at quarterback are sophomore Abe Fenwick and freshmen Noah Vellaithambi and Easton Pinkerton.
Tinsley also noted that the offensive line will be one of the team’s strengths this year, led by seniors Zach Krason and Brace Mullett.
“This is the strongest group of offensive and defensive linemen that we’ve had at GW in a long time,’’ Tinsley said. “One of our coaches added up [their sizes] and we average 6-3 and 290. Which looks good coming off the bus, but now if we do anything after coming off the bus, who knows?’’
- Hurricane (4-2): Coach Jeremy Taylor thinks the Redskins have a chance to be “a decent defensive team’’ with nine of 11 starters returning, even though first-team All-State linebacker Tyrone Washington is one of the subtractions.
On offense, quarterback Ismael Borrero is back after throwing for 1,056 yards and 14 touchdowns in six games, and four seasoned receivers return in Chase Hager, JT James, Lucas Rippetoe and H-back Brogan Brown. Adding to the pass catchers is baseball standout Cam Carney, out for football for the first time.
The offensive line might have just one senior starter, but Taylor can still see possibilities for his squad.
“We have a chance,’’ Taylor said, “if things come together, to be a pretty decent team this year.’’
- Parkersburg (6-2): Mike Byus begins his fifth season with a fourth-year starting quarterback in Bryson Singer, but the versatile Singer may be used in other spots after leading the MSAC in rushing last season with 1,235 yards.
“He may play multiple positions this year,’’ Byus said. “We have a sophomore, David Parsons, who can sling it around a little bit. It might allow Bryson to play multiple positions ... to utilize his talents in a lot of different areas. He’s also a good receiver.’’
Byus believes his front seven on defense is solid, led by tackle Jeff Jones, a state wrestling runner-up. Second-year starter Curtis Hayes anchors the offensive line.
“We are as strong as we’ve been since I’ve been in Parkersburg,’’ Byus said. “I don’t know if we can catch anybody, but if we do, our young men have gotten themselves pretty strong.’’
- Riverside (1-5): The Warriors bring back nine starters on both offense and defense, and fourth-year coach Alex Daugherty has his expectations.
“We were pretty young last year,’’ Daugherty said, “but I told our guys we can’t use age as an excuse. If you’re going to play on Friday night, you’ve got to produce just like everybody else.
“I think each year, we’re moving toward the right direction as far as the mentality of the kids and the mentality of our program. Our goal is to bring back some excitement for our community. It’s just being able to teach these kids how to stick together, to fight for something bigger than themselves. That’s our No. 1 goal.’’
- St. Albans (2-4): The Red Dragons had their first 2-0 start since 2007 last season, but later met unbeatens SC and Midland and ended with a losing record for the 13th straight time.
“What we’re trying to instill in our guys,’’ said fourth-year coach Nick Watts, “is that it’s an uphill battle for us, where the program has been and trying to kind of rebuild against the programs we have to play. I think we’ve improved every year, and I think we’ll improve again this year. Our off-season program has been pretty good.’’
SA returns its starting QB in sophomore Peyton Brown and four of its top six tacklers, including defensive end and state wrestling champion Elijah Edge.
“[Brown’s] got a lot of young guys who are going to have to step up in the skill spots,’’ Watts said, “but I think that’s a good thing. They’ll be able to grow and learn together the next three years.’’