POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — It won’t be confused with the storied rivalry between Pitt and WVU, but this will have a little bit of that ‘Backyard Brawl’ feel to it.
The Point Pleasant football team looks to continue its historic run through the 2015 campaign Friday night when it hosts seventh-seeded Huntington in a Class AAA quarterfinal at Ohio Valley Bank Track and Field in Mason County.
The two schools — separated by less than an hour’s drive — haven’t faced one another on the gridiron in at least two decades. It will also be the first football contest between the two programs since Huntington and Huntington East consolidated into the current Huntington High back in the fall of 1996.
The Highlanders (9-2) are making their fifth consecutive Class AAA quarterfinal playoff appearance, which also includes a pair of Final Four efforts over the last two postseasons. HHS was the Class AAA runner-up in 2013 and also made it to the state semifinals last fall.
The second-seeded Big Blacks (11-0), on the other hand, have only reached the Final Four in football twice during their previous dozen postseason appearances. The first came in 1979 after reaching the Class AAA semifinals in an 8-team field, then more recently in 2011 as the Class AA state runners-up.
In making its eighth consecutive postseason appearance — including four in a row as a Class AAA member — PPHS will be playing in the second round of the Class AAA bracket for a third straight year. The Big Blacks, however, have yet to win a Class AAA quarterfinal under the current 16-team playoff format.
With most of the Mountain State keeping a curious eye on the outcome of this contest, ninth-year PPHS coach Dave Darst has educated his players on what’s at stake this weekend. He’s also quick to note that there is one huge obstacle standing between his troops and history.
“We’ve made the kids aware that Point Pleasant has never won two triple-A playoff games in a season and that only one team at Point Pleasant has gone 12-0, but never at the triple-A level. They also know that they have a chance to leave their mark as the best triple-A team to ever walk the halls at Point Pleasant High School,” Darst said. “We’ve also made the kids aware that we are facing a really great football team that has been to the state semis in each of the last two seasons. They are well-coached, disciplined and have a lot of playmakers on both sides of the ball, so our kids know this won’t be easy.
“We have had a good week of practice so far and our kids are really excited about having this opportunity. It’s going to be a special night here because you’re going to see our kids show up and play really hard … and I think you’re going to see the same thing from Huntington High. It’s going to be a battle.”
The Big Blacks are outscoring opponents by a sizable 667-118 overall margin this season, which averages out to 60.6 points offensively and 10.7 points as a defensive unit. PPHS is plus-9 in turnover differential through 11 games and also owns a 203-105 advantage in first downs this season.
Point Pleasant is producing nearly 470 yards of total offense per contest, with roughly 408 of those yards coming from the ground game. The Red, Black and White are also surrendering just 77 rushing yards and 206 total yards per game defensively.
PPHS holds a 432-68 scoring edge in the first half of games this fall and also has a whopping 78 rushing touchdowns offensively, compared to just four allowed by the defense. The Big Blacks have scored at least 64 points on six different occasions while recording one defensive shutout.
The Highlanders, conversely, have posted three shutouts this fall while outscoring opponents by a 401-138 overall margin — which averages out to 36.5 points offensively and 12.5 points defensively. HHS suffered its only two losses of the year to fourth-seeded Capital (51-14) and top-seeded Cabell Midland (35-10).
Huntington is producing roughly 330 yards of total offense per game, including a rushing attack that churns out nearly 213 yards. HHS also has 53 offensive touchdowns on the season, with 39 of those coming on the ground.
Defensively, HHS has allowed only 226 yards per contest — including an average of 139 yards by opposing rushers. The Highlanders have produced 23 takeaways this fall and are plus-2 in turnover differential.
In a lot of ways, the two teams appear to be — on paper — a mirror image of one another. Darst acknowledged that there was some truth to that statement, which also means that Point’s offense had better be focused on the task at hand.
“What impresses us the most about Huntington is the defense. Statistically, us and Huntington have been the top two defenses in triple-A for the last three or four regular seasons,” Darst said. “We are very similar in approach because both teams pride themselves in shutting down offenses, and a good defense always helps in the playoffs. It will be quite a test for our offense, but we are excited to see what we can get done.”
Quarterback Jaylen Adaway (SR, 6-0, 170) has completed 56-of-127 passes for 1,220 yards, throwing 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on the year. Adaway has also rushed for 165 yards on 41 attempts.
Jadon Hayes (SO, 5-10, 165) leads the ground attack with 603 yards and seven scores on 93 carries, followed by Seth Finnegan (JR, 6-0, 170) with 472 yards and three scores on 101 attempts. Dionne Jackson (SR, 5-11, 170) also has 319 yards and seven TDs on 43 totes.
Jackson leads the wideouts with 32 catches for 793 yards and 11 touchdowns, followed by Finnegan, Lenny Jackson (JR, 5-11, 165) and Kobe Woodall (SR, 5-10, 200) with five catches apiece.
Cason Kessinger (JR, 5-11, 170) is 33-of-34 on PAT kicks this fall and is also 6-of-8 overall on field goal tries, which includes a perfect 4-of-4 on field goals inside 40 yards. Terrance Tate (SR, 5-10, 175) has three of Huntington’s five special teams touchdowns, while Jackson accounts for the other two.
Defensively, linebacker Ryan Gatrell (SR, 6-3, 215) leads the team with 114 tackles and four sacks. Linebackers Shymeik Burger (SO, 5-11, 190) and Noah Toney (SR, 5-11, 175) also have 82 tackles apiece.
Despite an all-time record of 7-12 in postseason games, Point Pleasant will have one major advantage working in its corner this weekend — its beloved 12th man.
Since opening the facility in the fall of 2009, the Big Blacks own a combined 39-4 record at OVB Field — which includes a 6-2 mark in playoff games. Point has also won its last 11 home contests following a 28-7 setback to visiting Wheeling Park in the second round of the 2013 postseason.
“It seems like I say it every week, but we really do enjoy taking the field in front of our home crowd. It really is a special moment for the kids, the coaches and the community each time,” Darst said. “The people of Point Pleasant know that we are going to play our hearts out each and every time that we take the field. Being at home just helps that much more.
“The kids have put in a tremendous effort all year just to get to a game like this. We’re healthy, and we’re more prepared for a game like this than we’ve been in a long time. Now, it’s basically show up, shut up and play the game.”
The Big Blacks and Highlanders will kickoff their Class AAA quarterfinal playoff game at 7:30 p.m. Friday night.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.