Ritchie defeats Wirt in hard fought battle
ELLENBORO — Ritchie County’s Graden McKinney spent the last few weeks in COVID-19 quarantine just watching his Rebel teammates playing out the regular season.
“It was a struggle and you see your team make big plays and you just want to make big plays as well,” McKinney said.
Upon his return to the field in an opening round playoff game against Wirt County Saturday at Chuck Schofield Stadium, he wasted zero time making his presence felt. By romping 72 yards to paydirt with 7:57 left in the game, and with his Rebels barely ahead of the Tigers 8-7, his score gave them the breathing room they needed in a 16-7 win.
One of the Rebels’ biggest weapons took a handoff from quarterback Ethan Haught, ran through a big hole in the middle of the offensive line, broke a tackle, then was largely untouched on his jaunt down the right sideline to the end zone.
“It had been open some other times, but I had to break a tackle. I knew if I just broke that tackle, I would be gone and I finally did it,” he said. “It meant a lot for it to happen because now we have a chance to make history here and go one week further than we ever have before in the playoffs.”
McKinney’s trot came after neither team found much success moving the ball after halftime or all afternoon.
Both defenses were up to the task. Rick Haught’s Rebels limited the Tigers to 172 yards and Jason Hickman’s group held an explosive Ritchie offense to 262 stripes. Both teams combined to convert just 3 of 24 third downs.
Gus Morrison, Ritchie County’s leading rusher on the season, only picked up 46 yards on 12 carries. This was second to McKinney’s 136 yards on just six carries. Garrett Parsons gained 79 yards on 21 carries. He also scored the only touchdown that gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead with 3:03 remaining in the opening half.
It was the only scoring they would do as three other first half trips to the red zone ended in a turnover on downs. “Too many opportunities slipped by in the first half. If we capitalize on those, I think it is a different outcome,” Hickman said.
Kicker Shelby Simonton stayed on the sideline all three times on fourth down with the Tigers inside the 10-yard line.
“We thought about it a couple of times, we did. It was a debate and it was something that we had. But it was just something that we felt like a couple times we had a couple of things we could do (to score touchdowns). One time we had a receiver slip for a touchdown and we just didn’t quite execute,” Hickman said on sending her out to attempt field goals.
Even after failing to score any points in opportune situations, the Tigers had one last chance after McKinney’s rumble late in the game. The Rebels failure to convert on the conversion try left the score at 14-7. Following each’s three-and-out on their next drives, the Tigers got the ball one final lengthy possession with 3:39 left at their own 16. A ten-yard holding penalty on first down though made it harder. They only picked up one yard before Austin Bartlett dragged down Dylan Lowe in the end zone for a safety on third down. From there, the Rebels ran the clock down and Wirt County got one last play with 5 ticks left on the clock.
Kolton Parsons pass fell harmlessly to the ground.
Ritchie wasn’t much better at creating scoring opportunities, but they made plays. Bartlett’s safety to seal the game, McKinney’s run, and Gus Morrison’s 17-yard dash to pay dirt all helped send them to a second-round matchup against Greenbrier West.
With a win over the Cavaliers, the Rebels will advance the farthest in the playoffs in program history.
“I just really like this group of kids and I am happy for them. I don’t like to be a one and done playoff team,” Haught said.
SOMETHING TO BUILD FROM
Wirt County’s playoff absence had stretched back to the Hickman’s first tenure at the school. Now that the streak is over, his staff and he look to use this moment as a building block.
“We hope so,” he said. “Our senior class did a good job of getting us back in this thing and I think some of our younger guys are learning from that to see what it takes to get here and learning the amount of effort and work it takes.”
Hickman and company will move forward without lineman Matt Duskey, Simonton, Lowe, likely all-state utility player Garrett Parsons, likely all-state linebacker Logan Powell, and likely two-time all-state defensive back Nathan Murray.