KEYSER, W.Va. — Losing seniors is part of the job for any high school football coach. For first-year head coach Derek Stephen, it’s one of the many challenges he has dealt with during the nearly six months since his appointment as new head coach of the Keyser Golden Tornado.
“I don’t know if we can fill the void of some of those seniors,” Stephen said. “They set the bar really high for what football is all about. But our young kids are stepping right in. They see where the bar is and what they need to do to reach it. I don’t know if they’re ready to step up to the occasion, but they’re taking it in stride and we’re going to find out sooner or later.”
The Golden Tornado look to replace the output of quarterback Ryan Shoemaker and tailback Tristin Fox, as well as numerous talents they lost on defense to graduation.
Fortunately for Keyser, strength in numbers is something it has had in its favor for many years.
But replacing those seniors probably won’t be the biggest challenge — simply playing a full season in and of itself due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we first came back, it felt like we were walking on eggshells, trying to follow every guideline,” Stephen said. “It’s kind of become second nature though. We’re wearing our masks, cleaning everything, keeping our distance. When we first came back from our temporary shutdown, it felt a little tense. But it feels like it’s coming a little easier now because we’re getting use to it.”
Before the season started, Keyser was hit with a small COVID outbreak, forcing the team to shut down activities temporarily.
“It’s been a big thing,” Stephen said. “We lost a week in our prep for games, so we’re trying to squeeze everything in in that shorter amount of time.
“Some kids aren’t picking it up as easy because we can’t slow it down and teach as much, but the good thing is we’re keeping a lot of things the same so the learning curve isn’t as bad for our kids coming back.”
Stephen and his team know full well their season being played to completion isn’t completely in their control.
Just last Friday, the opening day for many schools across West Virginia, teams in Monongalia County — where West Virginia University is located — had to put their seasons on pause because their county moved to the red category in the state’s COVID protocol metrics at 12:30 p.m., about seven hours prior to kickoff for numerous teams.
The move canceled the opening game for Morgantown High School, coached by Sean Biser, who previously spent 16 seasons at Keyser.
Stephen played on Biser’s first team at Keyser and spent the past 11 years as his assistant including the last seven as the team’s defensive coordinator.
“A lot of the things you’ll see at Keyser this year are things Coach Biser did,” Stephen said. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. We’re going to run the same style of offense and defense.
“A lot of lessons he passed on from his time here are things you may not see on Friday nights, but it’s more so things that we do amongst ourselves — how we run practice, how we put ourselves across, things like that. If it’s not broke, why are we going to try to fix it?”
Biser resigned in February to take the job with the Class AAA Mohicans after compiling a 119-55 record with the Tornado, with playoff appearances in the last nine seasons and 14 of 16.
Stephen is off to a good start — 1-0 — after the visiting Golden Tornado overwhelmed Berkeley Springs last Friday, 61-33.
“That first win always feels good,” he said. “We saw a lot of things that we need to improve on, but that first victory is always pretty special.”
Keyser outgained the Indians 683-450, including 620-192 on the ground. Drae Allen led the rushing attack with 222 yards on 17 carries while Zion Powell needed just seven touches to amass 141 yards, largely gained on touchdown runs of 63 and 64 yards in the second quarter.
Sammy Bradfield and Malachi Blowe both reached the end zone twice, each recording a passing and receiving touchdown.
Gavin Root showed off his arm with four completions on seven attempts for 63 yards and two touchdowns, all in the second quarter. Root also scored on a 32-yard run in the third quarter, with Allen scoring on a 20-yard rush and Chayse Evans on a 46-yard dash.
“Our greatest strength right now is our skill guys on offense,” Stephen said, “we have more guys returning there than anywhere.
“But the biggest thing is our attitudes. They’re working hard, not letting anything bother them. They’re just focused on getting started.
“Our biggest unanswered question is our offensive line,” he said. “We only return one starter — two went on to play college ball at FSU and WVU, another had the opportunity, another playing tight end in college.
“Our biggest question is how is our line going to hold up? We know who we have, we just want to see how they’ll best fit us.”
Lining up at weak side guard is Gabe Ryan, the lone returner. Ryan (6-foot-3, 195 pounds, sophomore) is “a hard-nosed kid that works his butt off in the weight room and out on the field,” Stephen said. “He sets a good example for all the young guys to follow through.”
Lining up beside him at weak side tackle will be Vito Amoruso (6-0, 260, Sr.).
Jake Bonner (6-1, 180, Jr) and Caden Youngblood (5-8, 150, So.) are expected to compete for strong side guard, with Luke Anderson (5-9, 155, So.) starting at strong side tackle.
“At guard, we look for kids with quick feet that are fast because they need to pull and kick out,” Stephen said. “At strong side tackle, we need a bigger body that can straight on block or gap block. At tight end, we look for more of a hybrid type of player. Someone that can get down the field, but also block and take on tackles as well.”
At tight end will be Jacob Keating (6-2, 240, So.) and Braydon Keller (5-11, 160, So.) battling it out for time.
Bradley Sommers (6-1, 155, Sr.) will be snapping the ball on the offensive line. “He’s going to be a first-year starter as a senior,” said Stephen, “but he’s one of the hardest workers on the team. He’s going to give everything he has. He’s such a smart kid. He can play anywhere on the offensive line. He’ll do a great job having our alignments set up and everything.”
Rotational options are Naylin Cook (5-10, 135, Sr.), Braedon Welch (5-9, 237, Jr.), Ethan Glass (5-10, 187, Jr.), Dakota Ratliff (5-8, 185, So.), Tommy Hardy (5-11, 190, Jr.), Adrian Davidson (5-10, 195, Sr.) and Gage Metts (5-10, 168, Jr.).
Root (5-10, 170, Sr.) is the team’s starting quarterback, having played wide receiver last year but also spending time as the backup quarterback.
“It doesn’t seem like we’ve really missed a beat,” Stephen said of Root’s transition. “He’s a little bigger of a quarterback than we’ve had in the system, but he’s making the right calls, reads and doing everything that we need him to do right now.”
Seth Healy (5-7, 130, So.) is the backup and he will also see time at receiver.
Allen (5-9, 200, Sr.) will serve as a bruiser at fullback as a four-year starter.
“He can run over you when he needs to,” noted Stephen, “but he’s got a little wiggle on him as well. He’s a bigger kid that knows the ins and outs of the offense, but also knows the ins and outs of the offensive line, so he can really make things happen.”
Powell (6-0, 170, Sr.) will line up as the team’s wingback. “He was a change-of-pace guy last year. He likes to get outside and run, but also can put his shoulder down and get the tough yards if need be.”
Bradfield (5-10, 165, Jr.) will serve as the halfback, with Stephen lauding him for his work ethic over the offseason. “He’s worked his butt off in the weight room and gotten bigger and stronger.”
Also getting carries out of the backfield are Benny Oates (5-10, 175, Jr.), Evans (5-8, 180, Jr.), Blowe (5-7, 145, Jr.) and Anthony Mele (5-6, 130, So.).
Dameain Emerick (5-10, 152, Sr.) will be the team’s primary wide receiver, with Healy competing for time.
Defensively, Keyser is looking to replace its entire front line, with Allen and Ryan getting the start at the defensive end spots. Amoruso, Luke Anderson and Parker Anderson will get time at the two defensive tackle spots.
At the outside linebacker spots are Oates and Powell, who started the last three games of last season at that position and played a lot as a backup there as well.
At inside linebacker will be Evans and Youngblood.
Starting on the outside at the cornerback spots will be Root and Emerick, while Healy and Bradfield are battling for the safety spot.
“One of the strengths of our secondary is they’re all really smart kids,” Stephen said.
The big spots on special teams are all returning from last year, with Powell and VanPelt handling the kick and punt return duties, Powell punting and Seth Earnest (5-11, 140, Jr.) serving as the team’s primary kicker on field goals and kickoffs with Edan Parks (5-8, 135, So.) backing him up.
Stephen looks to make his record 2-0 on the road tonight when Keyser travels to the Northern Panhandle to take on Oak Glen.
Kyle Bennett is a sports reporter for the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @KyleBennettCTN.