GLENHAYES — All season long, fans of the Tolsia High School football team have sported shirts that read “Demanding Respect.”
If the rest of Class AA hadn’t taken notice of the Rebels yet, they will be forced to next week as the third-ranked Rebels will face top seeded Bridgeport for the state championship.
Tolsia (12-1) punched its ticket with a 22-0 shutout of seventh-ranked Mingo Central Friday night at home.
The Rebels held the normally potent Miner offense to just 100 total yards on 33 plays from scrimmage.
Tolsia will enter the Super Six on an eight quarter shutout streak, and has allowed a total of 176 yards in that span. The Rebels previously disposed of Herbert Hoover 54-0 a week ago, limiting the Husky triple option attack to just 76 total yards.
“What a year, what an amazing bunch of kids, “ Tolsia head coach Mike Smith said. “I can’t really put it into words right now. It (defense) is going to be very important this week. It is every week, so we’re going to do the same things next week we’ve done all week and see where we go from there.”
The shutout, however, didn’t come without a couple of close calls.
On Mingo Central’s opening possession, the Miners marched methodically to the Rebel 13-yard line. The Miners utilized a similar offensive approach as last week’s contest with Bluefield by running quarterback Stevie Hammond and tailback Deonte Joplin out of shotgun spread sets. The Rebels bent, but didn’t break, however, and Central’s six-minute march came away empty.
The stop followed a score on Tolsia’s opening possession that put the Rebels up 8-0 with just over seven minutes to play in the first quarter.
The Rebels operated almost exclusively out of a Power I formation and utilized a variety of sweeps and isolation plays to punish the Miner defense. Quarterback Seth McMillion capped the 8-play, 60-yard drive off on an quarterback follow off right tackle to give Tolsia the early lead.
The Rebels pushed their lead to 14-0 with 9:52 left in the second quarter when McMillion connected with tight end Brian Campbell on a 28-yard pitch and catch off play action. Operating out of the Power I, McMillion faked an iso run to the left and found Campbell wide open on a post route in the end zone to cap off the 87-yard scoring drive.
The Miners’ hopes suffered a severe blow just before halftime when Hammond was injured on an 8-yard scamper that placed Central in Tolsia territory.
Hammond was taken from the field and did not return to the game.
To compensate, Joplin was moved to quarterback and tailback duties were split between Bo Lester and Taylor Thornsbury. The move deteracted from Mingo’s passing prowess and essentially turned their shotgun spread set into a de facto Wildcat formation. Joplin’s only pass attempt of the night was intercepted by Logan Presley in the third quarter. Hammond only completed two of his four pass attempts for 11 yards.
That drive, however, reached the Rebel 4-yard line before Joplin was stopped a yard shy of a first down. That would be as far as the Mingo Central offense could penetrate into Tolsia territory on the night.
The final nail in the Central coffin came courtesy of Luke Presley on a 21-yard run with 4:36 remaining in the third quarter. Presley led all rushers with 153 yards on 25 carries. Following the game, he was reflective of the work ethic of his teammates up front who have contributed to Tolsia’s prolific ground game.
“The work we’ve put in the last four seasons has just been tremendous,” Presley said. “The linemen have been in here all offseason and there wasn’t a day that went by that those guys weren’t in here working and sweating together. We knew we had the talent and the work ethic to do what we’ve done this year. It’s been amazing.”
Jennings Holland, who finished with 60 yards on 10 carries, said the championship berth was the realization of a goal set forth by the Tolsia seniors long ago.
“We knew coming into this year we’d have just about all of our offense back. Coach Smith said this was going to be a big offseason. He said if we all get on board, special things will happen because we were a special group. We knew that. When we first started out as freshmen, we set the goal of going to Wheeling,” Holland said with a shrug.
Entering the season, the goal seemed a mere pipe dream as the Rebels had come off back-to-back 4-6 campaigns. Prior to this season, the senior class had a combined record of 13-17. With last night’s win, they came within one triumph of equaling their total win mark for the previous three years combined.
“We came in from last year after not having a good year at all,” two-way senior lineman Aaron Hardwick said. “We just kept saying ‘Next year. Next year’s the year.’ Entering the year, we weren’t even in anyone’s top 20. With each week, people kept talking about pressure building, but we don’t feel any pressure. We aren’t even supposed to be here right now. We’ve come a long way.”
McMillion echoed his teammates’ sentiments.
“We’ve been working for it for 11 months,” McMillion said. “We knew that if we just came out and played right and kept working we’d have a shot.”
Tolsia moves on to face two-time defending state champion Bridgeport, who survived a 28-20 scare from Fairmont Senior on Friday night. Despite the tall order, McMillion said he thinks Tolsia’s scheme could be a bit of an equalizer.
“Nobody’s really stopped it yet,” McMillion said. “It’s a really hard offense to get because if you have one guy mess up (defensively), it can break for a big play. Sometimes that’s all you need.”