With everything that West Virginia student-athletes have missed out on over the last three months due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s just like adding another log to a roaring fire.
When the Friday Night Rivals North-South Classic, set for July 10, was recently canceled, it meant 13 Kanawha Valley football players didn’t get to compete in their final high school game. Some of them, like Riverside’s Austin Stephenson, intend to play football in college, but the sting still smarts.
“I really wanted it,’’ said Stephenson, a linebacker who is headed to Fairmont State. “Ever since I was in middle school and I went into football, I started watching [the North-South game]. I wanted to play in that game one day and showcase my talents, that kind of thing.
“Also, there would have been that extra step to get me ready to play at the next level. That whole week of practice, you get tips and pointers from great coaches and great players. Great tips and tricks to make me a better player, so I’m disappointed to not be able to do that.’’
Stephenson was one of three Riverside players listed on the South roster when it was released in April, and he was still optimistic about playing even after North-South officials postponed the game from its original date of June 13 to July 10 because of continuing concerns about the pandemic.
But seemingly, just like everything else that was supposed to happen for student-athletes since mid-March — the final two months of classes, spring sports, prom and, for many schools, graduation ceremonies — the game was also called off.
Stephenson said it “definitely’’ helped to have a positive approach through the malaise, and didn’t want to get stuck in the rut of feeling sorry for himself.
“Well, I had to look at it this way,’’ he said. “With them canceling everything, I have to stay on top of everything. Whether it’s canceled due to the virus or canceled due to anything, I’ve got to keep moving, stay on top of myself, stay in shape. Not only that, but be mentally prepared and take whatever comes.’’
Last season, Stephenson helped the Warriors get to the Class AAA playoffs for the first time since 2007. From his linebacker position, he come up with 55 tackles, two quarterback sacks and an interception. As a tight end, he caught five passes for 76 yards and provided plenty of blocking in Riverside’s run-first offense that cranked out 263 yards per game on the ground.
Another disappointed Kanawha Valley senior standout was Herbert Hoover’s Ben Kee, a linebacker-running back who’s bound for the football program at Glenville State after not getting the chance to compete in the North-South contest.
“I think everyone was bummed out that we didn’t get to play,’’ Kee said.
Kee posted his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season last fall despite missing two games with a high ankle sprain and being limited in two other starts. He finished with 1,015 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground and threw a scoring pass against Logan. Kee ended up with 15 career games of 100 or more yards rushing.
It was on defense, however, that he had an even bigger impact, earning a first-team berth on the Class AA All-State squad with 88 tackles, 18 of them for lost yardage. Kee became the first athlete in Hoover’s highly regarded history to make first-team All-State in football and capture a state title in wrestling in the same academic year. He won a Class AA-A mat championship at 160 pounds in February after finishing third at 170 as a junior.
Tim Meyer, who stepped down as the Huskies’ football coach in December, marveled at Kee’s dedication to the game and for a tough mindset needed to get through high school in a makeshift manner following the devastating June 2016 Elk River floods that closed their school building.
“I have coached high school football for 21 years,’’ Meyer said, “and Ben Kee is the best all-around football player I have ever coached. His work ethic and approach to the game are second to none, and he has always placed the good of the team over his own gains.
“[I] feel bad for this group of seniors that went through Hoover. [They] started as ninth graders going a half-day at Elkview [Middle], spent three years in a portable without a real school, then almost didn’t get a graduation. Now Ben can’t play in the North-South game.’’
Kee intends to focus on football in college, though Glenville wrestling coach Dylan Cottrell has inquired about his interest in doing two sports.
“Coach Cottrell has asked me a few times,’’ Kee said, “but I just enjoy football more.’’
A new teammate of Kee’s at Glenville will be former Sissonville All-Stater Gavin Shamblin, who shifted between end, tackle and linebacker on defense and was a superb blocking fullback on offense. Shamblin was also ticketed to play for the South in July’s All-Star game.
Even though he missed the majority of the Indians’ first three games while recovering from injury, Shamblin started on defense for a fourth straight season, ending with 28 solo tackles, 17 assists, 17 tackles for loss and four quarterback sacks. On offense, he caught seven passes for 58 yards and provided interference for an attack that averaged 357 yards, 225 per game on the ground.
“He was an anchor to our defense from his sophomore year on,’’ said Sissonville coach Marc Wilson, “[and] he is the best blocker I have ever coached in high school.’’
Another two-sport star, Shamblin is expected to play football and wrestle at Glenville State. He was chosen to the Class AA All-State second team at linebacker and was the AA-A state runner-up at 220 pounds in wrestling.
Here are the other 10 Kanawha Valley athletes listed on the South roster for the North-South game, along with their accomplishments and career plans:
Bomani Segrest-Brooks, Hurricane, DL-OL: Fourth on the team in tackles as a senior, with 48 solo stops and 27 assists, to go along with six tackles for loss and five quarterback sacks. Selected to the Class AAA All-State second team as a defensive lineman. Plans to attend Marshall but not play football.
Tay Calloway, Capital, RB-DB: Led the Cougars with 14 touchdowns as a senior, 12 of them rushing scores. As a running back, carried 136 times for 812 yards and caught 12 passes for 107 yards and two TDs. Had four games of 100-plus rushing yards, with a high of 153 on 15 carries in a win against Hurricane. Headed to play at Antelope Valley Junior College in Lancaster, California.
Caden Easterling, Riverside, RB-DB: Became the all-time rushing leader for the Warriors with 4,307 career yards, and is the program’s only three-time 1,000-yard rusher. Ran for 1,543 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior and was selected to the Class AAA All-State first team. Does not plan to attend college.
Cameron Foster, Nitro, RB: He turned his only season of high school football into a success story, carrying 163 times for 1,290 yards and 16 touchdowns, highlighted by an 18-carry, 191-yard, six-TD performance in a wild 64-56 win at Wayne. Posted eight games of at least 110 yards rushing. Currently undecided about his college plans.
Cameron Lovejoy, Buffalo, DL-WR: Appeared in just eight games due to injury, but excelled on the defensive line, ending with 41 tackles, 10 assists, an interception returned for a TD and two forced fumbles, earning a spot on the Class A All-State second team. On offense, ran 32 times for 138 yards and one score, caught seven passes for 69 yards and kicked 12 extra points. Does not plan to attend college.
Alex Mazelon, George Washington, WR-DB: Finished as the Patriots’ top receiver for a second straight season, catching 51 passes for 770 yards and 12 TDs and was picked to the Class AAA All-State second team as a wideout. On defense, had 17 solo tackles, 11 assists, six pass breakups, 1.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Plans to attend WVU for academics.
Isaiah Osborne, Riverside, DB-WR: As a defensive back, came up with 42 tackles, five of them for lost yardage. As a receiver, had seven receptions for 131 yards and two scores, and is best remembered for his 27-yard touchdown catch from Javante Elzy on a fourth-and-11 play with 25 seconds left to beat South Charleston 36-33, the Warriors’ first win versus SC since 2007. Intends to run track at WVU Tech.
Andrew Preast, George Washington, OL-DL: A Concord football recruit, he finished fourth on the team in tackles with 28 solo stops and 49 assists, including eight tackles for loss, 1.5 quarterback sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Played a major role on the offensive line as the Patriots threw for 30 touchdowns and nearly 2,500 yards.
Logan Spurlock, Capital, LB-TE-PK: Led the Cougars in tackles for a second straight season and was selected to the Class AAA All-State first team as a linebacker. Returned an interception for a TD against George Washington. Caught six passes for 78 yards as a tight end and booted three field goals and 35 extra points. Recruited to play at Glenville State.
Matt Stone, Poca, DE-TE: Ranked among team tackle leaders with 112 total stops, including 24 for lost yardage and 12 quarterback sacks and recovered two fumbles. On offense, caught 10 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown. Selected to the Class AA All-State first team as a defensive lineman. Plans to attend trade school.