WHEELERSBURG — A select few high school programs in the state of Ohio can attribute two football state championships to their resume.
Wheelersburg High School became one of those few after claiming the 2017 Division V state championship — a 21-14 overtime win over Pemberville Eastwood.
Yes, while the seniors, juniors and sophomores who comprised the 2017 team have since graduated, the freshmen on that undefeated 15-0 squad are now finally seniors hoping to prove themselves — just as their now-graduated teammates have done in prior seasons.
Of the Pirates’ 15-man 2020 senior class, 12 of those seniors were members of the state title roster.
Chase Conley, a freshman on the 2017 Pirates team, and Gage Adkins, a three-year Pirate who moved into the Wheelersburg school district from Watkins Memorial, spoke at Wheelersburg media day about what getting the chance to play their senior year of football — just as their teammates in years past — would mean to them.
“I can only pray I can because that’s just a dream of mine,” Conley said. “That’s what you want to do on Friday nights here in Wheelersburg — play at the Ed (Ed Miller Stadium), run out in front of all your fans. Might not have as many fans this year, but as long as we have a season we’ll be pleased.”
“Since I’ve moved here, being a Pirate, being able to play on Friday nights is something that means the world to any kid whose grown up here or knows the tradition behind Wheelersburg football,” Adkins said. “Being able to suit up one last time would mean the world.”
After graduating a 20-man senior class a year ago, Conley and Adkins admitted they’ve been working hard to fill the shoes of those who graduated from last season’s team.
Last year’s Pirates advanced to the regional semifinals of the OHSAA playoffs before falling to Ridgewood, 42-17.
It was the earliest any Wheelersburg team had been eliminated from the postseason since losing its opening playoff game during the 2012 season.
Prior to the start of the 2020 season, the OHSAA Board of Directors has voted to adopt a six-game regular season for football and has given each team in the state a chance to qualify for the postseason — if Governor Mike DeWine gives the O.K. for outside competition for contact sports.
Added together, the Pirates’ senior class has enough motivation to right the ship — if football indeed is played this fall.
“It’s been very uncertain,” Conley said. “But Coach Woodward, he’s our leader; that’s who we always look up to. He’s very optimistic, and he’s saying we’re having a season, so we know we’re going to have a season until they say otherwise. As long as he says we’re having it, we’re going to prepare for week one soon.”
“Regardless of what the outcome is, we’ve had a nasty taste in our mouths since last year,” Adkins said. “We want to go back and compete for a state championship this year.”
During the offseason, Wheelersburg’s program also experienced the loss of Coach Dave Watts, a 50-plus year staple of Pirate football.
Conley and Adkins said it was the little things with Watts that will be missed most, and that the Pirates are planning ways to honor his memory on the field.
“Watts was an awesome man,” Conley said. “He was in this program for 50-some years, he just did whatever he had to do to help the kids. He did everything for us so it’s tough not having him here this season. We’ll definitely do stuff in memory of him, because he just meant that much to this program.”
“He did all the little things around the program,” Adkins said. “That just means a lot to our program as a whole, that’s the stuff that nobody gets to hear a lot about.”
When and if the Pirates do get their opportunity to hit the gridiron this fall, there will be some new faces in key positions on both sides of the ball.
While the prospect of that idea may be unflattering for some teams, it’s the work that goes into perfecting a gameplan that has meant consistent, year-in and year-out success for the Pirates under head coach Rob Woodward and his staff.
“On the field, we’re still trying to work things out, figure out our key components of the team this year,” Conley said. “We’re a close-knit group; we’re very, very tight. I think that shows in many ways — whatever we do, we’re doing it together.”
“Overall we play with grit, strength,” Adkins said. “A lot of us have worked really hard all year long. We’ve all put on weight, gotten faster. We play with a competitive edge.”