MAN — After a 40-20 loss at home to Class AAA county rival Logan in last year’s season opener the Man High School football team reeled off nine straight wins to close out 9-1, just as many had expected.
The Hillbillies entered the Class A playoffs with the home field advantage and the No. 5 state ranking heading into a first-round clash with a tough and underrated Bishop Donahue team, seeded 12th in the brackets.
Man ended up falling 21-16 to Bishop, a private Catholic school located in the northern panhandle, rallying back from a 21-0 deficit.
The Billies came back with two late touchdowns and two two-point conversions as quarterback John Thomas Keffer scored on a 12-yard keeper on a fourth-and-five play and then connected with tailback Braden Griffin on a 48-yard screen pass for another score.
But the 16 points were not enough as Man closed out the season with a 9-2 record.
Seven months later, the Man football team is set to hit the gridiron again on Monday with the start of the three-week June practice period.
With lots of starters coming back and enthusiasm all around the Billies are anxious to make their return to the field.
After a 12-2 season and a berth in the 2009 Wheeling Super Six where Man fell to Weirton Madonna 27-7 in the Class A state championship game, the Billies suffered three straight losing seasons from 2010-12.
Last season, Man returned to the elite ranks of Class A football in the state of West Virginia and hope to remain there this fall.
“We will practice up until July 3 or 4 into that weekend,” said Man coach Harvey Arms, who is entering his 13th season as head mentor of the Billies and has five playoff appearances. “We’re excited about trying to get ready for the next season. We’ve got a lot of kids coming back. We’re looking forward to it.”
The three-week June practice period is often used to work on offensive plays, fundamentals and conditioning before regular football practices are to begin on Monday, Aug. 4. It’s also a chance to bring into the fold some of the lesser experienced players.
Man lost 12 seniors to graduation, including: Cayce Mullins, Robert Caudill, Dakota Toth, Tracy Jones, Noah Maynard, Jeremiah Beavers, Thomas Holt, Justin McDaniels, Joey Buchanon, Gage Whitt, Zachary Tackett and Larry Browning.
Some of the lost seniors were key starters, but, as always the case with the football tradition-rich Billies, there’s plenty of talent to go around.
“When you have experience it always helps and your learning curve is not as high,” Arms said. “We have a lot of kids that have played two years of varsity. Even though we have a lot of players who are coming back we will be relatively a young team. But that’s good for us in the future.”
Returning for Man at quarterback is three-year starter and rising junior John Thomas Keffer, who has started for the Billies under center since his freshman year.
Man football over the years has been a grind-it-out, smashmouth, you-tackle-me-and -I’ll-block-you kind of team.
But with the strong arm of Keffer, especially last season, the Billies mixed up and diversified its offense.
Last fall, Keffer completed 104-of-185 passes (56.2 percent) for 1,316 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Keffer also ran for 105 yards and scored five touchdowns, including the QB keeper in the playoff game.
Keffer was 15-for-29 passing for 146 yards in last year’s playoff game.
“We will be counting on John in being a leader,” Arms said. “He came in as a freshman as a starter and started for us last year. Still last year, we counted on him in being a leader just as a sophomore. We’re lucky to have a kid who is as knowledgeable about the game as he is. He’s also very competitive.”
Two of Man’s loses to graduation were Keffer’s top two targets last season in Jones and Mullins. Jones finished the 2013 season with 41 catches for 697 yards and nine touchdowns. Mullins had 50 grabs for 569 yards and five scores.
“Since we’ve had John Thomas we have thrown the ball some more than we usually do here at Man,” Arms said. “We lose Tracy Jones and Cayce Mullins at receiver and we’ll have to work really hard to replace them. We are losing our two top receivers but we feel like we’ve got some guys who will really compete for that. We’ll still be able to throw the ball some I think.”
Man’s balanced backfield returns in tact and that’s good news for the Hillbillies, which always seems to have a good ground attack.
Man has a one-two-three punch at running back with bruising fullback Neil Mullins and tailbacks Braden Griffin and Mikle Scott Rowe.
The three backs combined for 273 carries for 1,437 yards (5.3 ypc.) and 19 touchdowns last season.
Mullins led the way in 2013 with 99 rushes for 583 yards (5.9 ypc.) and six TDs. Griffin had 103 carries for 561 yards (5.4 ypc.) and nine scores. Rowe ran for another 293 yards on 71 attempts (4.1 ypc.) and had four touchdowns.
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 264 pounds, Neil Mullins was a load to bring down last season. Seeing him crash between the tackles with a head of steam was always an imposing sight to opposing team’s secondaries.
Arms was asked last season about Mullins, who bulldozed his way to many 7, 8 and 9-yard carries, moving the chains or setting up second-and-shorts or at least, third-and-manageables.
“He might be a biscuit or two above that,” Arms quipped last year after the Chapmanville game about Mullins when asked about the listed weight.
Keffer, along with Griffin, Rowe and the graduated Cayce Mullins and Maynard, were all members of Man High School’s Class A state championship baseball team. Keffer was the winning pitcher in relief in last week’s 12-10 victory over Clarksburg Notre Dame in the Single-A finals.
Maynard was last year’s leading tackler with 55 stops and a sack.
Man, however, returns Christian McCoy (54 tackles, 8 sacks) on defense, as well as Neil Mullins (43 tackles, 4 sacks), Gage Harvey (45 tackles), Rowe (34 tackles) and Tanner Bailey (33 tackles, 1 sack).
Rowe is also Man’s returning punter.
Tyler Grimmett, a sophomore who saw action on both sides of the ball last year as a receiver and a defensive back, also figures into Man’s plans heavily this season.
Ross Osborne, a starter in Man’s secondary last season, is also back. Osborne and Grimmett each had two interceptions last year. Grimmett preserved Man’s 26-22 home victory over county rival Chapmanville Regional by intercepting Tigers’ QB Alex Berry at the Billies’ 10-yard line.
Man’s 2014 regular season schedule is exactly the same as the Billies are matched up against the same 10 opponents.
“It’s exactly the same but we will just change the places we play,” Arms said.
The Billies open Aug. 29 at rival Logan, then play host to 2A Mount View on Sept. 5 in the home opener and Man High School Hall of Fame Game.
Week 3 has the Billies hosting 2A Westside on Sept. 12.
Then in Week 4, Man is set to travel to Bradshaw to take on Class AA River View.
The following week, the Billies are scheduled to host fellow Class A team Fayetteville in the annual Man homecoming game on Sept. 26.
After a bye week on Oct. 3, Man plays at 2A county rival Chapmanville on Oct. 10. The two teams are 7-7 against each other since the county series was resumed in 2000.
The Billies are then scheduled to close out the season with four contests — Oct. 17 at home against Sherman, Oct. 24 at Pocahontas County, Oct. 31 at home against Tug Valley and Nov. 7 at Van.
Man beat all four of those teams last season. Only the Tug Valley Panthers gave Man much of a fight in a 24-14 decision at Naugatuck.
The Billies also have the same two preseason scrimmages as they did last year.
Man is set to travel to Class AAA George Washington on Aug. 16 and then hit the road for the Midland Trail Gridorama on Aug. 22.
During the June practice period, Man will take part in two 7-on-7 passing tournaments.
“We plan on doing two 7-on-7s — one at Concord on June 18 and the other at Chapmanville on June 20,” Arms said. “The kids like the 7-on-7s. It’s fun. It gives us an opportunity to compete.”
The Billies, just like every high school football team in the Mountain State, has a lot of work to do.
But Man is hoping to have another successful season on the gridiron.
The road to Wheeling beings on Monday.
“We were happy last year with how the kids came along,” Arms said. “We had a really good regular season but we didn’t play as well as we would have liked in the playoff game but that gives us some incentives to work harder toward our goals for this year. We hope to get ready for the playoffs again this year and hopefully we can get a little further.”
— On Tuesday, a preseason look at the Logan High School football team.
2014 Man High School
Aug. 29: at Logan, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5: Mount View (Hall of Fame Game), 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 12: Westside, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 19: at River View, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 26: Fayetteville (Homecoming), 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 3: OPEN DATE
Oct. 10: at Chapmanville, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 17: Sherman, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 24: at Pocahontas County, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 31: Tug Valley, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 7: at Van, 7:30 p.m.
2013 Man High School
Football Results (9-2):
Aug. 30: Logan, L 20-40
Sept. 6: at Mount View, W 44-0
Sept. 13: at Westside, W 22-14
Sept. 20: River View (Hall of Fame Game), W 46-8
Sept. 27: OPEN DATE
Oct. 4: at Fayetteville, W 30-25
Oct. 11: Chapmanville (Homecoming), W 26-22
Oct. 18: at Sherman, W 36-6
Oct. 25: Pocahontas County, W 42-0
Nov. 1: at Tug Valley, W 24-14
Nov. 8: Van, W 61-6
Nov. 16: Bishop Donahue (Class A playoffs), L 16-21