WHEELERSBURG —The tradition-rich and proud Pirate program has always been about reloading, and not rebuilding.
Even when Wheelersburg’s football season included a pandemic prior to it — and remains amid such.
And, the Pirates — perhaps more so in this their 81st year — are indeed reloading, in hopes of firing the cannon at Ed Miller Stadium with its familiar “boom” and sweet sound of victory.
Wheelersburg, with the graduation of 19 seniors off last season’s (8-4 overall) sixth consecutive Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship which includes an ongoing 26-game league winning streak, will attempt its newest performance with the bulk of its 72-man roster consisting of freshmen and sophomores.
These Pirates are younger, with 23 sophomores and 23 freshmen for a fact, yet Wheelersburg — with its 2020 team motto being “Be The Best” — still aims to be just that.
With the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s decision to automatically enter all 2020 teams in the state playoffs —should they so choose —Wheelersburg will be making its ninth consecutive postseason trip and 31st in program history.
However, the Pirates first seek to defend their SOC II title —which will make up their revised regular-season schedule following Friday night’s non-league season opener at Chillicothe.
It’s familiar territory for the Orange and Black, as 13-year head coach Rob Woodward said his Pirates have actually taken advantage of this year’s coronavirus-impacted off-season.
Despite the Pirates’ youth, and some loss of time during the shuttered spring for speed training, the path leading up to this season has veered very little — if any.
“Ever since May 27, we’ve been doing the exact same thing we’ve been doing every single year. Does it look different? Aside from having different groups in terms of the times they were coming in and working out over the summer, it still has looked like any other year,” Woodward said. “We didn’t change our off-season schedule from any other year, but we were just more effective in our training.”
And like all other programs in the state, up until Aug. 21, all the Pirates could do is practice and scrimmage amongst themselves —due to an original Ohio Department of Health order and OHSAA mandate prohibiting inter-school competition.
The Pirates, which did scrimmage at Teays Valley, perhaps could have used another preseason outing in order to further fine tune their spread offense —which graduated four first-team all-Southeast District Division V honorees, including two-time first-team all-Ohioan Makya Matthews.
Matthews started last season at quarterback before returning as a running back after missing a game due to injury, and rushed for 838 yards and a dozen touchdowns on 103 carries — with an average of eight yards per attempt.
He also made 28 receptions out of the backfield for 465 yards with five scores — with 16.6 yards per catch.
Matthews also averaged 11 yards on kickoff returns and nine on punts, and made 34 tackles with two pass deflections and two forced fumbles from his free safety spot.
Had he not made first team as a running back, he would have done so as an all-purpose player, of which Wheelersburg senior teammate Evan Horsley (5-10, 205) was selected for.
Horsley, like Matthews, was a three-year starter and team captain for the Pirates — playing running back, halfback, linebacker, punter and ultimately quarterback.
Horsley carried the football for 429 yards and five touchdowns on 76 carries, and caught five passes for 58 yards.
As the club’s QB in all but a quarter of the five SOC II tilts, he completed 31-of-53 passes for 601 yards and nine TDs — while making 37 tackles on defense and punting for an average of 38.6.
The other first-team all-district graduation losses include lineman Gavin Welch, who was also a second-team all-Ohioan, and wide receiver Hunter Ruby.
Woodward said last season’s backups now step in as starters — as senior Gage Adkins (6-1, 180), a tight end and defensive back, returns after earning Special Mention all-district.
Fellow senior Matthew Miller (6-0, 165), who competed for the starting signal-calling spot before missing most of the season due to injury, is battling sophomore Kenny Sanderlin (6-2, 220) and fellow senior and Ashland transfer Jake Gregg (5-10, 180).
When Matthews wasn’t running the football last season, chances were Carson Williams was (6-0, 175, jr.).
Adkins is back at tight end, as seniors stepping in along the offensive line are Jay Holsinger (6-0, 235), Blake Richardson (6-3, 270), Chase Conley (6-0, 225), Camron Griffey (6-4, 245), Ethan Ison (6-3, 225) and Will Whitley (6-0, 220).
“We have a multi-faceted offense with a lot of looks and variations, but we’ve been able to streamline that to help better teach our kids but still utilize our athleticism,” Woodward said. “We’re going to push some guys that maybe people didn’t know their names last year, but they are for sure this year.”
Another offensive weapon, junior Braxton Sammons (5-11, 180), returns as the standout placekicker and punter.
As a punter, he actually earned third-team all-Ohio — after making first-team all-district.
“He (Sammons) is a great weapon for us in the kicking game. Extremely effective for us,” said Woodward.
Those same six seniors will also step in up front defensively, along with fellow senior Taden Adkins (5-8, 200).
Sanderlin is back at linebacker, along with Williams and Holsinger.
Gage Adkins is a two-year starter in the secondary, as Miller returns at corner with fellow seniors Mason Montgomery (5-10, 175), Case Dyer (5-9, 155) and Ian Fannin (5-11, 135) filling voids.
“We’re still evaluating a lot of guys on defense, but we do have a lot of depth. Guys have just been waiting their turn,” said Woodward. “They got a lot of experience through playoff games and playoff practices over the last three years, got a lot of chances to grow and develop.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved