Not long ago, South Charleston never seemed to be in a position where it had an ample supply of experienced players, returning starters who could lead a team to success by their mere presence.
Two years ago, in fact, the Black Eagles lost eight players who, in the offseason, transferred to neighboring schools — six of whom were being counted upon to start. But that’s not the case anymore.
SC coach Donnie Mays welcomes back nine starters on either side of the ball — including defensive lineman and Division I prospect Zeiqui Lawton — as his team looks to contend for another Class AAA playoff berth. The Black Eagles have qualified for the postseason six times in the previous seven years.
Just as significant, perhaps, is the fact SC didn’t lose a single player to transfer this time. Instead, at least two athletes have transferred in to the program, all of which gives the Black Eagles an important base from which to work. Mays, though, isn’t taking anything for granted as preseason practice looms on Aug. 17.
“One of the things we have written on our wall,’’ Mays said, “is ‘Don’t expect to win — earn it,’ which is kind of our mantra going in. The kids are working hard in the weight room. They understand you just don’t walk out and win the game. You’ve got to apply yourself.
“The little things, we’ve got to get better on. Turning the ball over is one of them, and another thing is creating turnovers. You look at our team that played for the 2014 state championship and the defense wasn’t exactly a juggernaut, but we created a ton of turnovers. That’s something we’ll emphasize this year. Keep the ball out of the hands of the other team.’’
Mays likes the look of his offensive line, which returns three full-time starters and a part-time starter in junior Nijil Amburgey (6-foot-3, 240 pounds). The anchor of the line is junior Xavier Bausley (6-5, 300), who is getting some Division I attention.
“He works out all the time,’’ Mays said of Bausley, “is a 4.0 student, has a great family, has a lot going for him. The sky’s the limit for that kid, and he has a tremendous attitude.’’
Other returnees on the forward wall are seniors Zack Moore (5-11, 374) and Cody Buckley (5-9, 265).
Trey Dunn took over at quarterback as a freshman last season and Mays was encouraged by his development. Dunn finished the season with 1,965 yards and 14 touchdowns passing.
“There were moments where he struggled,’’ Mays said, “but things started to click the middle of the season, especially when we opened things up with his feet and let him move a little bit. After Week 5, he got into the groove of things. I think he’ll have a breakout year as a sophomore.’’
In his first four starts, Dunn completed just under 55 percent of his passes with three TDs and seven interceptions. But over the final seven games, he was nearly 60 percent on his attempts and threw for 11 TDs with just five picks.
Mondrell Dean was the Gazette-Mail’s Kanawha Valley rookie of the year last season as a freshman, topping SC in rushing (561 yards, six TDs) and added 42 tackles as a linebacker, 16 for lost yardage. Tavahjay Smith transfers in from Princeton and could push for playing time at running back.
Three experienced receivers return in sophomore Jah’Den Estep (22 catches, 305 yards, one TD), senior Shyleik Kinney (20 catches, 187 yards, one TD) and senior Donavin Davis (14 catches, 256 yards, three TDs).
Lawton (6-2, 245) is also expected to get some carries at either fullback or running back, but is known more for his work on the defensive line, for which he received a first-team All-State selection last season. Lawton has received a dozen Division I scholarship offers.
Also back on the defensive front are Bausley and sophomore Jayson Barnett, who came up with eight quarterback sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year, then grew in the offseason, adding 40 pounds.
Returning at linebacker are Dean, senior Joseph McAllister and juniors Caiden Davis and Hunter Withrow. Donavin Davis is back to start for a third straight season at cornerback, and Capital transfer Kevin Tinsley could win the job at free safety.
SC also returns two of its special teamers in junior place-kicker Chase Edwards (two field goals, 32 extra points) and junior punter Bryce Casdorph. Long snapper and short snapper Hunter Burns is also back and plays some on the offensive line.