RACHEL — It’s the biggest stakes possible, against the best team possible, in the nicest stadium possible.
For North Marion High, a football squad looking for its first on-field playoff victory since 2001, the stage doesn’t get much more hype than tonight when the No. 10-seeded Huskies travel to the extravagant Mitchell Stadium to take on No. 2 Bluefield at 7:30 p.m. for a spot in the Class AA state semifinals.
The Huskies (7-3) enter tonight’s state quarterfinal matchup after advancing past No. 7 Keyser in last week’s first round via forfeit due to COVID-19. It’s the program’s first state quarterfinal appearance since 2001 when North Marion, under coach Gerry White, lost at Morgantown 38-20. The Beavers (6-1), meanwhile, roll into today’s game after blasting No. 15 Clay County 47-6 in last week’s first round. It’s the program’s 16th state quarterfinal appearance in the past 19 seasons under long-time coach Fred Simon.
“Obviously we’re not happy to have advanced the way we did against Keyser, and that sucks for them and all of the teams who don’t get to play,” said North Marion junior quarterback Brody Hall. “But nonetheless we advanced and Bluefield is a great team, so we’ll have to play a really good game.”
Hall and the Huskies have utmost respect for Bluefield, but the Beavers, quite simply, are more than just a great team, they’re one of the state’s longest standing premier programs, a hegemon that has played in 17 state title games and owns 11 state championships.
Under Simon, who is in his 35th season as coach, the Beavers have five state championships, 12 state title game appearances, 24 playoff appearances, and a 54-18 postseason record (.750).
“The biggest push point (from us) is that they’re a high school football team,” said North Marion coach Daran Hays. “They’re obviously a very storied program and Freddy has done an outstanding job, but you also have to rest a little bit easy with the fact that we play Fairmont Senior every year, who has been tit for tat with them (recently), we’ve played Bridgeport every year up until this year who beat them last year in the championship game, so we’ve been in these dogfights before. It’s just a different style and a different type.”
The Huskies, who are in the playoffs for the third time in the past five seasons and technically won their first playoff game during Hays’ 12-year tenure last week against the Golden Tornado, have indeed faced their fair share of challenging opponents this season alone, in terms of both merit and style. They’ve played four games against playoff teams this season in Fairmont Senior, Frankfort, Robert C. Byrd and Elkins, going 1-3 in those games, with the lone win coming via a 33-15 victory Bluefield, meanwhile, went 3-1 against playoff teams in the regular season, defeating Class AAA No. 10 Princeton twice and Class AA No. 12 Point Pleasant while losing to Class AAA No. 8 Parkersburg.
Bluefield, which is always a recruiting hotbed within West Virginia, is dynamic and athletic across the board roster-wise. The Beavers may not boast quite the level of punishing physicality to go along with that speed as they’ve had the past few seasons, but even still, trying to pick holes in Bluefield’s physical profile is generally an exercise in futility.
Simon and his staff accentuate the Beavers’ speed and athletic advantages with a lot of spread formations capable of frying defenses with quick-hitting plays in space or deep shots over the top. Quarterback Carson Deeb is the epicenter of Bluefield’s attack, a big-armed senior with lots of arrows in the quiver in terms of his passing palette. He can throw quickly to his right or his left, he’ll launch deep shots down the sidelines, and he’s especially adept at threading balls down the seams. In seven games in 2020, Deeb is 96-of-155 (61.9 percent) for 1,565 yards with 16 TDs and 4 INTs. And although it’s not his forte, the kid can scoot a bit too when things break down or on designed keepers in the red zone, where he has rushed for 102 yards and 5 TDs.
Deeb has a litany of weapons at his disposal, which allows Bluefield to pinpoint and isolate specifically favorable matchups. Brandon Wiley, an all-state first team candidate, is the scariest of Deeb’s options with 30 receptions for 682 yards and 7 TDs. He’s an absolute game-breaker, averaging 22.7 yards per catch. Complementing Wiley are the Greens, Juwuan and Jacorian, who have combined for 47 catches for 719 yards and 7 TDs.
“They’re similar to Fairmont Senior, but they’re also different,” said Hays, whose Huskies will face Bluefield for the first time since 1990, with North holding a 2-1 series lead all-time. “Obviously, the biggest concern when you look at them is going to be their speed.”
In the ground game, where the Beavers are anchored by a trio of senior linemen in Derick Flack, Ross Simon and Nicholas Martin, Bluefield has four runners with over 200 yards this season in Jaeon Flack (392 yards), Amir Hairston (248 yards), Jacob Martin (221 yards), and Shawn Mitchell (213 yards). Flack and Hairston got the bulk of the touches in the first round against Clay County, with Flack rushing 10 times for 91 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Hairston had 11 carries for 66 yards and a TD.
North Marion’s defense, meanwhile, may have played its best game of the season last time out in a 55-8 win over Liberty Harrison in the regular season finale, but the Huskies had their hiccups against both Frankfort and RCB defending the run and they haven’t faced a volume passing attack since Sept. 25 against Lincoln. The unit is led by senior all-state defensive end Garrett Conaway, and the front four of Conaway, Jake Cochran, Chase Duckworth and Kaden Hovatter is a tough group overall. Brock Troy and Tyler Curry are rangy guys at the next level, and two-way star Tariq Miller is the top cover man.
“Defensively, we just play hard for (defensive coordinator) Coach (Steven) Harbert,” Hays said. “He’s a guy who doesn’t scheme everything to death like I was probably guilty of at times when I was calling the defense, but he just gets them to really believe, sometimes that they’re even better than they are.”
North Marion’s own offensive firepower oozes the potential to give Bluefield’s defense its own problems, Hays said. Like the Beavers, the Huskies can beat teams on the ground or through the air with a heavy dose of run-pass option and quick-hitters that put opposing defense’s second-level defenders into a bind.
“We have to take care of our advantages,” Hays said. “Our efficiency is a great advantage and I think the amount of kids we play is big advantage. And I think our RPO game is something that equates the game for us a little bit; that’s become our kind of identity is equating numbers to our passing game and being able to take advantage of things like that.”
Hall, who has been legitimately impressive in his first season as a starter, is the orchestrater in both the pass and run game. He’s 104-of-170 for 1,691 yards with 17 TDs and 5 INTs, and he’s also rushed for 358 yards and a team-high 8 TDs. Hunter Kuhn is the main ball carrier with 93 carries for 567 yards and 7 TDs. And Miller is the Huskies’ all-around game-breaker as a threat every time he touches it, be it on slants, wide receiver screens, short crossers or designed runs; he’s far and away NMHS’s leading receiver with 46 catches for 842 yards and 9 TDs, and he’s also rushed for 126 yards and two more scores.
“We have a dominant front I believe, and we’re able to run it or throw it,” said Jake Cochran, NMHS’s center on offense. “I think we just have to have a good mindset on being prepared, and then we have nothing to be scared about or whatever.”