Ritchie County surprised not only people from across West Virginia with its victory against Wheeling Central in last week’s Class A playoff semifinals, it surprised people right in its own community.
“We have a janitor who works at school, and he’s a good guy,” said Rebels coach Rick Haught. “He follows our school’s sports and comes to a lot of the games.
“I saw him [Monday] and he apologized. He said he was cutting wood last weekend and didn’t come to our game. ‘I’ll be honest,’ he told me. ‘I didn’t think you’d win.”’
He’s not alone.
Ritchie County and Class AA Independence knocked off traditional state powers in the semifinal round to ensure that new blood will be on hand at this weekend’s Super Six state championships at Wheeling Island Stadium.
The Rebels (12-1) take on Williamstown (11-2) in the Class A finals at 7 p.m. Saturday, one day after Independence (11-0) tangles with Fairmont Senior (8-4) in the AA title game at 7 p.m. Friday.
It’s the first trip to the Super Six for both programs — Independence (Coal City, Raleigh County) opened in 1976 and Ritchie County (Ellenboro) began play in 1986. They’ve bucked the odds to get to Wheeling Island Stadium, home of the Super Six since 1994, and a site that’s seen multiple appearances by a handful of schools through the years.
Take the other teams competing this week, for example.
Martinsburg (12-1) makes its 13th visit to the state finals since 2001, seeking its ninth Class AAA championship at noon Saturday. Its opponent, Huntington, was there in 2013 — against Martinsburg, no less — and lost a 9-7 heartbreaker.
In the AA game, Fairmont Senior is back in Wheeling for the fourth time since 2016. It won state titles in 2018 and 2020, though the latter came without a trip to the Super Six, since COVID-19 wiped out all three state finals and the Secondary School Activities Commission issued titles to the only team left in each class that was eligible to play.
Meanwhile, Williamstown is Super Six-bound for the ninth time since 2003, having won championships in 2008 and 2014.
Many people didn’t expect to see either Ritchie or Independence among this group of familiar faces at Wheeling Island. They anticipated another appearance for their semifinal opponents — Wheeling Central in the Class A game and Bluefield in the AA finals, since each has already been there a dozen times. Central has captured 11 titles since 2000, and the Beavers have won five times since they started making long treks to the Northern Panhandle in 1995.
“Let’s face it,” Ritchie’s Haught said. “If everybody’s honest with you, they’d say the same thing [about being surprised]. Central’s been so dominant for so many years. That’s just the way it is.”
Independence is in the same boat as the Rebels. Their postseason resume was very slight until this season. The Patriots won their first postseason game in 1986, then lost in the first round 11 straight times between 1991-2020 — last year to the same Fairmont Senior team they tackle Friday.
“It’s been surreal,” said John H. Lilly, Independence’s fourth-year coach. “The kids are really excited. It’s been really hard to get them focused back after the big win [against Bluefield in the semifinals]. It’s the first time a team from Raleigh County’s been to a state championship in 44 years and just the second time ever [Woodrow Wilson won the AAA title in 1977].
“It’s new to everybody. It’s new to the community and new to our kids. So we’re kind of on uncharted land, you might say.”
Kanawha Valley fans probably remember Lilly from his days at Woodrow Wilson, where he coached from 2001-15, taking the Flying Eagles to the Class AAA playoffs six times, including a first-round win against Spring Valley in 2001.
Lilly said the improvement of Independence’s program came in increments.
“It’s a process that began about 20 years ago,” he said. “We didn’t have a weight room, so we built a weight room. We just started trying to change the culture a little bit, and the kids have bought in. It’s been an uphill climb for us. We got a little better last year, got beat by Fairmont Senior [43-15 in the playoffs] and the kids kept working hard in the offseason. So it’s been a four-year process.”
Like the Patriots, Ritchie County has made steady improvement under Haught, who’s also in his fourth season as coach.
The Rebels qualified for the Class A playoffs in 2018, his first year, and lost in the opening round. The following season, they won their playoff opener and lost in the quarterfinals. Last year, they won two postseason games to earn a spot in the semifinals, but couldn’t play because of their county’s COVID-19 status. And now, they’ve taken that one additional step to get to the title round.
“We’ve got a large group of seniors,” Haught said, “so when I took over, it was their freshman year and we kind of got things rolling by qualifying for the first round. The next year, we won in the first round ... and last year we won two games and COVID shot us down. This group of kids, I think, are pretty experienced as far as playoffs go. They’re in a better mindset than they used to be in the postseason.
“When I took over, I watched some of the programs in our area — like Terry Smith at Williamstown — and they always took the mentality that they’re not playing a 10-week season. They were planning to play for 13 weeks. Our kids are kind of like that the last two, three years — they’ve gotten the mindset to go further than just making the playoffs.”