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donnie mays

South Charleston coach Donnie Mays gives instructions during a practice session last week.

Last year, South Charleston crept up on the other contenders in Class AAA and emerged with a state championship in a COVID-shortened season.

This year, the Black Eagles won’t be afforded that luxury of sneaking into title contention. Not with the roster they have coming back.

Starting with All-State quarterback Trey Dunn and two defensive players getting Division I scholarship offers, SC sports not only a ton of players with experience, but players who are already accomplished at the high school level.

On offense, there’s Dunn and running backs Mondrell Dean and Amellio Miller — the team’s top three rushers last season — along with elusive receivers Jah’Den Estep and Wayne Harris, second-team All-State tackle Xavier Bausley (6-foot-5, 310 pounds) and impressive guard Nijil Amburgey (6-1, 270).

On defense, three of the team’s top four tacklers were lost — including Cincinnati edge rusher recruit Zeiqui Lawton — but six of SC’s eight players on either the defensive line or at linebacker all return, including two juniors already bearing Division 1 offers, defensive end Zimarian “Mari’’ Lawton (6-4, 250), younger brother of Zeiqui Lawton, and linebacker Mondrell Dean (6-4, 220).

So the Black Eagles have gone from flying under the radar to perhaps being the Class AAA team to watch entering this season. From 2017-19, SC posted three straight losing seasons (11-21 overall), only to rebound in a big way last year, going 6-0 and capturing the state title as COVID protocols permitted only four of 15 AAA playoff games to be contested.

Donnie Mays, who enters his ninth season as coach, realizes he’s got a lot of talent, but doesn’t give much thought to being squarely in the bull’s-eye this year instead of lurking undetected.

“We don’t really care,’’ Mays said. “It doesn’t matter to us. All we do is celebrate what we did last year, and we had a really good season, especially growing up as a bunch of freshmen going into their sophomore seasons. That was a younger group, and a lot of kids who played as freshmen were sophomores, and now they’re juniors.

“The focus last year was to improve on the year before, and we did that drastically. We improved in points per game, we improved defensively. We had a really good football team.’’

Dunn, who directs traffic on offense from his position under center, also offers advice on how to handle the newfound expectations.

“I think that’s something we’ve got to make sure our guys understand,’’ Dunn said, “that every week we’re going to be getting everybody else’s best shot. So we’ve got to make sure we come prepared, and don’t take anybody lightly.’’

A capsule look at some of SC’s returnees from an offense that averaged 50.6 points and 520 yards:

  • Dunn: Threw for 1,865 yards and 23 touchdowns in six games (310.8 yards per game) with just four interceptions. Also ran for 289 yards and seven scores, accounting for 30 overall TDs.
  • Dean: Led the team in rushing (393 yards, six TDs) and caught seven passes for 120 yards and one score.
  • Miller: Flashed explosiveness as a freshman with 306 yards rushing and two TDs, adding six catches for 40 yards.
  • Estep: Tied for the team lead with 23 receptions, turning them into 370 yards and two touchdowns.

And a closer look at some of the top players from a defense that permitted less than 16 points per game and forced 22 turnovers in six contests:

  • Lawton: Holds D1 offers from Arkansas State, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, Florida A&M and Miami (Ohio). Had 28 tackles and six QB hurries last year.
  • Dean: Team’s top returning tackler (39 stops, 12 tackles for loss, interception return for touchdown). Has D1 offers from Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio).
  • Jayson Barnett, defensive line: Turned in 26 tackles, 10 of them for lost yardage, and 11 quarterback hurries.
  • Caiden Davis, linebacker: Had 30 total tackles, including five for lost yardage.
  • Hunter Withrow, linebacker: Finished with 19 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
  • Jai’earnest Keys, defensive line: Came up with 17 tackles, two of them QB sacks.
  • Harris, DB: Had 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, broke up seven passes and intercepted two others. Also had eight catches for 87 yards as a receiver.

Mays knows the biggest hit to his defense is the loss up front of Zeiqui Lawton, the Gazette-Mail’s Kanawha Valley Player of the Year in 2020, but three of his four linemen are back in Mari Lawton, Barnett and Bausley. And Mays is high on a pair of rising sophomores.

“We have another kid, Aaron Clark, and he’s been chomping at the bit,’’ Mays said, “and he’s a powerful kid, and we have another, Devin Bruer, and he’s a long, athletic kid. So we have two guys who we feel like can fill the void if necessary. As a matter of fact, we feel confident enough with those two guys that maybe we can get Bausley back to just offense all the time.

“We return both of our inside linebackers [Davis and Withrow], and Mondrell Dean’s back, so when you break it down like that, six of your eight guys in the [tackle] box are back, and that’s a pretty good number to have.’’

Even on special teams, South Charleston is stocked, as Chase Edwards averaged 40.3 yards per punt last season and was true of 30 of 33 extra-point kicks.

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazettemail.com.

Follow him on Twitter

@RickRyanWV.

Preps Sports Reporter