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Poca 22

Poca’s Ethan Payne (22) looks for running room against Wheeling Central.

WHEELING — Since Wheeling Central moved its home games to the campus of Wheeling University five years ago, it’s known nothing but success, going 29-4 there and starting runs that ended in three Class A state championships.

On Saturday, however, Bishop Schmitt Field became a House of Payne for the Maroon Knights, courtesy of visiting Poca.

Ethan Payne carried 27 times for 206 yards and scored four touchdowns and younger brother Toby Payne hauled in eight passes for 121 yards as the Dots rolled off with a 34-6 season-opening victory in the second-ever meeting between the schools.

On the defensive side, Poca senior linebacker Dillon Taylor was instrumental in helping keep the Maroon Knights to 158 total yards and scoreless for nearly 31/2 quarters. Taylor, who added 20 pounds of muscle and more quickness in the offseason, finished with three quarterback sacks for losses of 32 yards and recovered a pair of fumbles.

“I feel like that’s always been Poca’s big thing,’’ Taylor said. “We want a strong defense and that opens up the offense. So that was sort of the goal going into it.’’

Central administered a good deal of pain to itself on Saturday with a rash of fumbled exchanges from center to a pair of new quarterbacks. The Maroon Knights lost five of their eight fumbles, with three of those recoveries setting up touchdowns for Poca.

“I thought early on, we fed off our defense,’’ said Dots coach Seth Ramsey. “They made some really great plays. Dillon was very physical, Landon Easter, Alan Withrow also physical up front and we got the ball. I couldn’t ask for more — they gave us the ball on a short field a couple of times.’’

Poca led 14-0 at halftime on TD runs of 1 and 22 yards by Ethan Payne. Both of those scores were set up by Central fumbles covered by the Dots — Taylor fell on one at the Knights 38 and Withrow pounced on one at the Central 22.

“You turn it over that many times and there’s no way you’re going to be in the game,’’ said Central coach Mike Young. “It’s a real breakdown in terms of execution. We didn’t have any scrimmages, and in the first game you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but I think we made way too many.’’

The Maroon Knights tried to keep Ethan Payne penned up at the outset, and made last year’s Kennedy Award winner and Marshall commit fight for his yardage. Of his first 11 carries, seven went for 3 or fewer yards, and at the midpoint of the second quarter those 11 carries gained just 46 yards. However, his next six covered 22, 14, 15, 4, 8 and 11 yards and it was off to the races.

“I just needed to get it rolling,’’ Payne said. “It’s been a while since I ran the ball and we only had two weeks to prepare [for the season]. Last year, we had four, five weeks to prepare. So I just needed to get it rolling and once I did, I got it going.’’

Central couldn’t afford to hone in on Ethan Payne because Poca also had its downfield game going courtesy of quarterback Jay Cook and junior wideout Toby Payne. Cook completed 20 of 27 passes for 195 yards with two scores, one of 8 yards to Taylor and another of 22 yards to Ethan Payne.

In the second half, Cook was 11 of 11 for 134 yards and two TDs. He completed 14 of his final 15 attempts.

Central averted a shutout with 8:14 left in the game when backup QB Mike Toepfer found Riley Watkins with a 12-yard scoring pass to make it 34-6. The Knights were limited to 49 yards on 30 carries but picked up 109 yards in the air. Payton Marling was 5 of 6 for 69 yards and Toepfer 3 of 4 for 40 yards.

“They play a very aggressive defense and they get after it,’’ Young said of the Dots. “They stunt a lot. And they play a very aggressive offense and they have the tandem of being able to throw it and being able to run it. So it’s a double-edged sword you have to defend.

“They’re a good team that will probably be playing on the Island if we have a regular season and a state championship — I would imagine they’d be there.’’

The Super Six state finals are held across town at Wheeling Island Stadium, but for Ethan Payne and his teammates, Saturday’s game meant more than just a normal opener.

“It definitely means a little something to this program,’’ he said. “I’ve never been up here and I don’t think anyone on the team has ever been up here. So it’s kind of like a taste of the state championship.’’

The Poca-Central matchup was caused by COVID-19 scrambled scheduling, as each team lost its originally scheduled Sept. 4 opponent due to the ongoing pandemic. It doesn’t look good for either team next weekend, either, as Putnam County’s status in the orange zone of the state’s COVID-19 risk factor means its teams can’t play next week.

The Dots were set to host Greenbrier East Friday and Central was to visit Winfield.

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickRyanWV.