BAKER, W.Va — In an area filled with run-heavy Wing-T offenses, characterized by old-school downhill power rushing, East Hardy is embracing the modern game and then some.
The Cougars took a page out of Mike Leach’s Air Raid playbook under former coach Brad Williams, who led the program from 2007-17 before taking over at Spring Mills, and current head coach Devon Orndorff has continued the tradition entering his third season.
Fresh off a six-win turnaround and a West Virginia Class A quarterfinals berth, Orndorff has no aspirations of deviating from their bread and butter scheme. With a team that returns all its skill position players from last year — 14 contributors in total — East Hardy is anticipating big things this season. It is already sitting at 1-0 after routing Peterburg, 33-0.
“My expectations are pretty high,” Orndorff said. “We want to win the Potomac Valley Conference, make the playoffs again and make a deep run. … Single A in West Virginia from what I’ve seen sounds like it’s wide open.
“Obviously Wheeling are the returning champs, and St. Mary’s coached by Jodi Mote are probably two of the favorites, but I think that we can compete with both of them this year.”
Orndorff’s first season at the helm was a typical transition season. The young Cougars went 2-8, but in the coach’s second campaign brought the program back to where they want to be year in and year out.
After starting off with losses to Strasburg, Virginia, and Frankfort, East Hardy rolled off seven wins in eight games to close the season, earning the No. 8 seed in the Class AA playoffs where they beat Midland Trail before falling to top-seeded Doddridge County in the quarters.
Orndorff was awarded PVC Coach of the Year following the 8-4 year.
The turning point came in week four against Meadow Bridge when inexperienced junior quarterback Christian Dale came in at halftime to pull out a 21-14 win. From then on, he never relinquished the starting job.
“He was very raw at that point,” Orndorff said. “We then had a couple of blowouts in a row (49-0 against Sherman and 46-14 against Tucker County). We took him out early in the game, so he wasn’t able to get some much-needed reps.”
Dale, an All-PVC first-team member, exceeded the 1,000-yard mark and tossed 11 touchdown passes in about five full games as the starter. Orndorff says he expects the 5-foot-8, 155-pound gunslinger to eclipse 3,000 yards in his senior season.
“He has a high football IQ, understands concepts and has a great pocket presence,” Orndorff said. “His arm talent is second to none, and he’s really timely in his progressions and the way he executes. He’s also a pretty good scrambler.”
For a pass-heavy offense to be successful, you need more than just a good thrower, and East Hardy has plenty of weapons to receive the ball on the outside.
A quartet of All-PVC pass-catchers in senior Andrew Tharp (first team), junior Noah Lang (first team), senior Brayden Richie (second team) and sophomore Dawson Price (honorable mention) are all back this year.
Tharp tallied 600 yards on 30 catches last year and could exceed 1,000 this campaign, Lang is explosive in the slot, leading the time with 25 yards-per-catch in 2019 and Price has shown a lot of potential, garnering big expectations due in part to his 6-3 frame.
Ritchie is listed as a back, but standing at 5-10, 230 pounds, he’s a tough tackle in the secondary when he catches the ball out of the backfield.
Though Air Raid offenses are known as pass-first attacks, having a solid running game is still a necessity. The Cougars are no different, returning a pair of quality tailbacks.
Senior Alex Miller, who was second-team All-PVC last season, went for 900 yards on the ground last year, and he’s joined by Mason Miller — who was the starting quarterback in 2019 before Dale took over — to complete a talented one-two punch backfield.
“I expect them to improve with another year under their belts,” Orndorff said. “I look for the starter to get 1,000 yards this year, and for us to have 1,500 yards on the ground total.”
But the whole offensive unit isn’t coming back. Four of the five offensive linemen who took the field a year ago have graduated — including All-PVC first-teamer Noah Miller and second-team member William Strawderman.
Junior Kollin Quarles (6-0, 265) will anchor the group at the center position in his third year starting at the varsity level. Senior Dayton Miller (5-9, 215) will finally get his time to shine in his final year, starting alongside Quarles at the guard position.
“I’m confident in our O-line, I’m pleased with the progression,” Orndorff said before taking on Petersburg for their season-opener. “There hasn’t been much of a difference from last year, but those guys are just young.
“There are still some voids we need to sort out, and it’s game week. (The virus has) affected everyone the same, but it still hurts that we lost a week of preparation when the season got pushed back.”
The returning experience will help East Hardy, as will the familiar system. Still, like many coaches, Orndorff and his staff have trimmed the playbook, at least at the season’s onset.
“It’s nice to see the coaches install our offensive schemes. We’re focused on quality over quantity,” he said. “We’ve really had to hone in on the basics and know what you do best. We’re focused on the fundamentals, might be going into the first game with half our playbook but we’re confident in what we’re bringing.”
That simplicity also translates to the defense, where seven starters return on that side of the ball.
Following the first two weeks of 2019 — when the defense allowed 35 and 41 points to Strasburg and Frankfort, respectively, the Cougar defense reeled off six straight games of holding the opposing offense under 100 yards. In the team’s final eight games, it gave up just 7.8 points per game.
But East Hardy runs a complicated hybrid 4-2-5 scheme, which could make it difficult for the new starters to get acclimated with limited preparation.
“A lot of our defensive parts are different,” Orndorff said. “Having a shortened practice time and only being able to play one scrimmage will probably make things more difficult.”
Dayton Miller returns at inside linebacker after a PVC honorable mention campaign, joined by his brother Mason Miller at the position — who replaces PVC Defensive Player of the Year and All-State linebacker Austin Alt.
Outside linebackers Tharp and Alex Miller patrol the middle of the field.
“Miller and Tharp have really stood out on a daily basis,” he said. “Miller has really shown up to play. He’s always in the right place at the right time. Despite being out in coverage a lot, he finished third on our team last year in tackles.”
He’s also been pleased with his cornerbacks, Lang and Price, who he says are lockdown corners. Dale will line up at free safety, and the defensive line consists of Ritchie, Riley Mongold (6-1, 255), Dale Hockman (6-3, 225) and Eric Flynn (5-9, 190).
So it appears as if all the pieces are in place on defense. And with its starting quarterback, running back and top four receivers all back, East Hardy could make a run at a state title. It has already gotten off on the right football, scoring a 30-plus point home triumph against Petersburg.
Game two, at Hardy County rival Moorefield, kicks off tonight at 7 p.m.
Alex Rychwalski is a sportswriter for the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arycwal.