Since Poca football became relevant again two seasons ago, the longest trips the Dots have made for a game are 92 miles to Mingo Central and 87 miles to Braxton County. On Saturday, they’ll more than double that travel and face a real challenge when they get there.
Poca hits the road for a game at three-time defending Class A champion Wheeling Central, with kickoff set for 1 p.m. at Bishop Schmitt Field on the campus of Wheeling University. Since Ohio County was green on the state’s COVID-19 risk factor map last Saturday, attendance is limited to immediate household members of the players and coaches for both schools.
The last time the Dots made a trek this long for a game, regular season or playoffs, was 2005 when they traveled to New Martinsville to meet Magnolia. Poca coach Seth Ramsey said the team would leave Putnam County at 7:15 a.m. Saturday for the three-hour excursion, and added that “travel won’t be an issue. We hope to get our legs under us and be ready to roll.’’
When they Dots get there, they’ll tangle with a team that’s had nothing but success since moving its home games to Bishop Schmitt Field. The Maroon Knights are 29-4 all-time at Wheeling University, where they relocated in 2015.
“They’re 29-4 there for a reason,’’ Ramsey said. “They’re just so good at what they do. Those guys, they absolutely could compete year in and year out in our division [Class AA]. They’ve got a phenomenal program and coach [Mike] Young does a remarkable job. They don’t beat themselves, they execute at a high level and do the little things well.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play and squared away defensively and offensively. They do a lot of shifts and motions to mess with our keys. We’ve got to read our keys and be disciplined enough. Whether it’s an onside kick or a trick play, we’ve got to have the wherewithal to hang in there and figure it out.’’
Poca features the running of senior Ethan Payne, a Marshall commit and last year’s Kennedy Award winner as the top player in West Virginia. He ran for 2,845 yards and 49 touchdowns a season ago. The Dots also sport an accomplished passer in four-year starter Jay Cook, who threw for 1,645 yards and 21 TDs last year. His top target was Toby Payne, Ethan’s younger brother and another player getting Division I looks after catching 42 passes for 985 yards and 15 TDs.
Young said the best way to slow down Ethan Payne is for Central to maintain possession and let the clock run, which lessens the opportunities for Payne to break a long gainer.
“We know he’s going to get his carries and his yardage,’’ Young said. “We’ve got to find a way to slow it down and make the most of our possessions. We know we’ve got to play good defense, but we’ve also got to play good on special teams and take care of the ball on every possession the best we can.’’
If the Knights are able to fence in Ethan Payne to some degree, Poca will have to counter with some big-play passes to Toby Payne or Ethan Miller.
“We’ve got to make sure that we put a big emphasis on keeping our drives going,’’ Ramsey said, “and doing what we’re supposed to do, executing the game plan. If that’s not working, we’ve got to be able to make adjustments and get the ball out to somebody to make plays.
“Toby, he’s definitely somebody we’re going to make sure we get the ball to. He’s just such a mismatch issue with the things he can do outside. He’s physical enough to overpower a small guy and fast enough to outrun a big guy. And he can move around — he can line out wide or in the slot or in the backfield.’’
Central, 10-4 a year ago, lost a good portion of the skill-position players from last season’s Class A title team, along with linebacker and three-time Sam Huff Award winner Adam Murray, the state’s top defensive player. However, the Knights do still have running back Jordan Waterhouse (1,343 yards rushing, 12 TDs) and receiver Payton Marling (25 catches, 200 yards, four TDs).
Young acknowledged that Central’s program is used to “playing up,’’ or taking on top teams in AAA or AA enrollment, so it shouldn’t be a factor against a Dots squad that went 11-1 last year and reached the AA playoff quarterfinals.
“That’s always been how we sort of looked at that,’’ Young said. “It’s not so much our record but how much improvement we make each week, how good we get after each week’s contest.
“When you play the physicality of a double-A schedule ... it doesn’t matter what our record is in terms of wins and losses, but are we getting better and how’s it look in the playoff picture? Knowing that if we can get in the playoffs with our record, we can definitely make some noise in terms of getting deep in the playoffs.’’