Reaching higher with leadership:

Senior captains producing in more ways than one

By Kevin Colley -

Wheelersburg’s Xander Carmichael carries the football during practice.

Wheelersburg’s Xander Carmichael carries the football during practice.

Kevin Colley | Daily Times

When any team experiences success, the leadership that the elder statesmen, or in other words, the more experienced hands, provide, is an essential element to that success.

And with five senior captains who are not only sure of themselves and their leadership qualities, Wheelersburg has the best of all worlds — on and off of the football field.

But according to the very seniors that have led the 2017 Wheelersburg Pirates’ football program to a point that hasn’t been seen in the county since 2002 — and 1989 for the program — leading a team like this isn’t too hard of a task. In fact, according to star lineman CJ Hall, it’s pretty easy — and fun.

“The leadership part’s pretty easy when you’ve got a team like this around you,” Hall said. “You set the standards, and they follow up with it. Everybody on this team is about hard work, and they put it together every single practice. They just come together. We just gel well.”

A large part of that enjoyment comes from the different personalities that are evident on the team, but also, the standard that has been set at Wheelersburg, which is something that Nic Parsley and Bryson Keeney take to heart.

“It’s a leadership role,” Parsley said. “You just try to teach the other guys what to carry on, what to do, what’s right, and what’s wrong. You show them how it’s done, and the hope is that they build on that and show the future teams what we’ve taught them.”

“It means a lot just to come out here and work with your brothers,” Keeney said. “When you come out and work with everyone you’ve grown up with, it makes it easy. You come out here and love what you do. We’re out here putting in work and trying to get better so we can give back to our community.”

“Our community does a very good job of supporting us, and they’re behind us with everything that we do,” Keeney continued. “We see that and we really appreciate our community and everything that they do for us.”

As for Alex George, it is the #ReachHigher theme — a theme that has been popularized all over the Wheelersburg community and on social media accounts throughout the town — that has helped motivate the senior as he has helped lead the Pirates on both sides of the football.

“It’s inspired me,” George said. “On and off of the field, the theme this year has been outstanding. I can think of a lot of times where it’s been used in school and at my house with chores and stuff like that. The coaches have done a great job with this theme and incorporating it into our lives.”

For that, George says, he has Rob Woodward to thank.

“It’s something special that he (Woodward) has built, that’s for sure,” George said about the theme. “He’s really instilled that in us.”

Over the years, the quartet have had a big impact on all levels, even if the playing time and the stats didn’t necessarily show that as they patiently waited their turn to contribute heavily on Fridays. Now, they are showing what they can do while holding down the highest roles of the team.

Hall and George have blocked for an offense that has collected 5,815 total yards and 74 touchdowns, while Keeney has led a secondary as an excellent open-field tackler (43 tackles) and cover corner (two interceptions). Parsley, meanwhile, has certainly done his storied football family proud: the senior has 87 tackles and six sacks to head arguably the most physical and punishing defensive line in all of Division V.

The quartet, along with fellow senior captain Xander Carmichael (91 tackles, three interceptions, 424 total yards of offense, nine touchdowns) have certainly been instrumental when they have needed to be. Keeney and Parsley stayed home on two critical special teams plays that allowed Wheelersburg to fend off Middletown Madison to reach the state finals with a 15-10 victory. Carmichael, meanwhile, followed the blocking of George and Hall on the offensive side of the football en route to scoring four touchdowns — and threw the go-ahead touchdown to Evan Horsley that completely shifted momentum toward the Pirates in its incredible 35-16 comeback victory over Columbus Academy.

But those plays weren’t just being made because the season was hanging in the balance. They were being made to show the younger players what the never-say-die attitude that this team has adopted is all about.

“They’re working,” Keeney said. “They’re seeing what it takes to come up and be a Pirate football player, and they’re seeing what we expect from them. They’re going to come out and produce. They know what our expectations are, and they’re going to live up to them.”

Now, they’re here, at arguably one of the most storied football facilities in the entire country, living a dream that they always had since they were kids.

“It means a lot,” Hall said. “It’s truly something special. We have talked about this for years, and we’ve always thought that we could be there in our senior year. It’s just crazy to think, ‘Man, we made it.’ But we got one more game. We got one more.”

“It’s everyone’s dream to make it to the state championship game as a high school football player,” Keeney said. “Even growing up through football, everyone wants to be there one day. It’s nice to be out here with my brothers. We have come in here and pushed each other every day in order to get better and get to this point.”

But make no mistake about it — the expectations are high — and a state championship is a part of that expectation.

And what else would all of us expect? The 2017 Wheelersburg Pirates, win or lose, have already cemented themselves as one of the best units to ever come out of the Southern Ohio realm.

“I expect (the Eastwood-Burg state final) to be a good game, and a tough game,” George said. “I’m expecting a run-heavy team. We’ve pretty much faced a run-heavy team this entire playoff run. I’m confident in my guys, and I’m confident in what we can do in all three phases of the game. We’re just excited.”

Wheelersburg’s Xander Carmichael carries the football during practice.’s Xander Carmichael carries the football during practice. Kevin Colley | Daily Times
Senior captains producing in more ways than one

By Kevin Colley