ELIZABETH - Although the Wirt County football team is seeking a fifth straight Class A playoff berth, each of the past two years the Tigers of seventh-year head coach Jason Hickman have been one-and-done when it comes to the postseason.
In order to have a shot at rectifying that situation, the orange and black must battle its way through the regular season and once again finish as one of the top 16 teams in single-A. Despite three home games to open the campaign, getting off on the proverbial right foot will be key for the Tigers.
"We have to hit the ground running," Hickman said of the Tigers' first three opponents in Valley Fayette, St. Marys and Gilmer County. "They've (Valley) got some good guys coming back and we've been telling the team all preseason it's going to be tough from the get-go.
"There is no easing into this thing. We have to play at a more consistent level all the time. Everything will click and look very good and the next day we go through times where we can't get any kind of rhythm going."
Even though the Tigers have a plethora of talented skill position players, which includes first-year senior starting quarterback Damian Rhodes, the degree of success for Wirt County this year will be determined by how well it does in the trenches.
Cole Linder is the only returning starter on the offensive line and has been moved to center.
However, expected starters Skylar Snyder (RG), Daniel McCue (LG) and Dylan Pickrell (LT) also have plenty of varsity experience. Brad Crouser, a senior who didn't play last year, is vying for the starting right tackle spot along with junior Walker Siers.
Jake Linville (13 TDs) and Cody Ferguson return after combining to rush for around 1,000 yards last year to lead the running game, which will be helped with the presence of Wes Valentine and at times Trent Hardbarger. Cam Nelson, a 10th-grader, also could factor into the run game but is recovering from a broken collarbone. Hardbarger, who is listed as a wide receiver, also could find time at tight end in certain packages.
Hardbarger is the Tigers' top returning pass-catching threat, but look for 6-foot-3 senior Justin Joy to be a major factor in the passing game. Austin McVey, Dustin Garner, Jared Blair, Kyle Windland, Hunter McCoy, Logan Kerby, Jake Brannon and John Fields also will give Rhodes plenty of targets for the Tigers' spread offense.
Defensively, the Tigers do return all of their linebackers with Hardbarger and Linville on the inside along with Joy and Ferguson on the outside. Sophomore Matt Toney is also in the mix at linebacker. Snyder, McCue and Linder should man the defensive tackle spots. Pickrell is likely to start at one defensive end, but the other could go to Garner, Crouser, Zack Garrett or Siers. Junior Alex Enoch also will provide depth in the trenches.
Valentine will roam center field on defense and act as the Tigers' safety. It appears Rhodes and McVey will be the starting corners.
Joy is set to handle the punting duties, Hardbarger will be the kicker and 10th-grader Luke Smith will be the junior varsity quarterback.