(Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a series of articles featuring Ohio County Schools, the district’s new superintendent, and the new direction of the district.)
Although the red, white, and blue still will cover their bodies, they will appear different because no longer will there be a lumbering tailback, a flying receiver with the stickiest of hands, or a senior-laden defense featuring a few all-staters.
But there will be two constants, and those are junior quarterback Cross Wilkinson behind center and Chris “Doc” Daugherty and his coaching staff on the sidelines. The Patriots, the reigning West Virginia Class AAA state champions, will be throwing more than running the football, and they will be very young on both sides of the ball.
“That is true,” Daugherty said. “But ‘young’ only lasts a couple of weeks. And it means we have to coach; that’s all.”
And coaching football, for Daugherty anyway, extends beyond the X’s and O’s, and that is because of the examples he’s had during his own athletic career and during the plethora of seasons serving as an assistant and then as a head coach. Daugherty played for Ron White as a student/athlete at Wheeling Park High, he served as an assistant under Mark Nardone, and he also watched the way Sam Andy went about managing his ultra-successful basketball program inside the “The Palace on the Hill.”
“I think everyone will always remember his wit. He was one of the quickest- minded people I’ve ever been around,” Daugherty said. “And to watch him take care of his wife, Sandy, for all of those years was an incredible thing. It’s going to be a sad day when we say goodbye to him (today at Altmeyer Funeral Home on the corner of Eoff and 14th streets), but he will always be remembered as a good man.
“Sam was the basketball coach for a lot of ‘first years’ for football coaches at Wheeling Park, and I was one of them. And I played for Sam when I was a student at Wheeling Park High,” Daugherty said. “He was a great coach and a great supporter of everything Wheeling Park, but he was more than a coach to those kids.”
Andy was a father figure, too, during the decades he coached on the high school level, and anyone who played for him will attest to that fact. It is an example, Daugherty said, he has tried to follow.
“I definitely think that’s my philosophy,” the head coach explained. “I believe good fathers are loving and firm. If a father just says yes to everything, he’s not very good, and if he’s firm with everything, he’s not very good,” Daugherty explained. “It’s a tough mix, and I believe coaching is the exact same way.
“I try to be a firm, loving coach and a guy that our players know they can call and come to my house, and talk to me even after the years since they have played have gone by. They all have my phone number,” he said. “They might not hear what they want to hear all of the time, but I think that’s important, too. In today’s society we have a lot of young men who are missing their fathers, and we have to fill that void as coaches, and if we are not, then we are not doing a very good job.”
And coaching at Wheeling Park High sometimes treks away from the gridiron and locker room and to life situations, and while people will adopt opinions, the focus must remain on the child involved.
“I think sometimes in life you have to do what’s right regardless of what people think about it being right or wrong,” Daugherty insisted. “If you know it’s right in your heart, you have to go with that, and the kids respect that. Even if you make a mistake with a kid, if he believes you care and you were doing what you thought was best for him, he’s going to run through a wall for you.
“That’s a part of coaching today,” he said. “And sometimes it’s more than football, more than the sport you are coaching, and you’d better know that before you get into a coaching position on the high school level.”
New players in different positions is not the lone new aspect involved with guiding the Patriots football program this year because a new Central Office administration has been installed by the Ohio County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Kim Miller. What those moves means to Daugherty he is not sure, but he’s confident in how he views the role football plays in the educational process on the high school level.
“They are very enthusiastic, and I have no complaints at all,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with support when things were not going well, and I would think there will definitely be support when things are going well, and that’s what we have right now. They understand that extracurricular activities like sports are such a large part of a high school’s process.
“It’s easy to get into that debate about what’s more important, education or the extracurricular activities, but obviously education is super important, and we all understand that,” Daugherty continued. “But without the extracurricular activities, high school just isn’t high school. So I would think they will support all of the programs at Wheeling Park and try to make them grow. I’m not sure how you make Wheeling Park grow, but I am sure they have a plan.”
It was a brisk December morning at Wheeling Island Stadium, but the sun shined, and the warmth grew by the quarter of the Class AAA state championship game. It was only the second time since Wheeling Park High School opened in 1976 that these Patriots had advanced all of the way to the finals.
It was estimated by many that more than 10,000 spectators filled the east and west stands for the title matchup against Capital High, and former Park players, students, and coaches were in the stands, on the sideline, or lining that fences that surround the north and south ends of the playing surface.
Daugherty was focused on the Cougars and their all-state quarterback, Tyrhee Pratt, sure, but he saw them, and he heard them, too.
“It really was like a family reunion of all of the past Park football players, and coaches and that support meant everything to us. We were busy playing the game of course, but we all noticed it and we felt it,” Daugherty said. “And those people were part of that victory because no matter how long ago they graduated from or coached Wheeling Park football, they will always be a part of the program. Always.”
Capturing the high school’s first-ever football state championship with one spectator in particular watching meant much to Daugherty, and that fan was Nardone who was honored before the game and even flipped the coin toss. Nardone, who guided Park’s football program for 11 seasons and never recorded a losing season, was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, forcing him to retire as Wheeling Park High’s assistant athletics director.
“There were some lean years before we achieved some success with me as the head football coach,” Daugherty admitted. “Mark was a very good coach, and he is one of the best ‘pay-attention-to-detail’ guys I’ve ever been around. He taught me so much.
“But when you take over for a guy like that who never had a losing season, and we go 1-9 and 2-8, people were asking what was going on,” he continued. “But to end last year with a state championship was a great feeling, not only for the current Wheeling Park players and coaches, but also for people like Mark, Ron White, and all of coaches and players that have been at Wheeling Park before I was there.”
“Doc” admits it now. The crowd, the atmosphere, the ride during a one-loss season, and a dominating triple-A playoff run were completely different from what he imagined.
“I was awestruck, to be completely honest, because I think every former coach and every former player had a vision what a state championship would look like, but it was bigger, and it was grander; it was a lot more than I expected it to be,” he admitted. “And there are so many reasons for that. When you look over and see people like Mark Nardone and Ron White and all of the faces from throughout the years of coaching and playing football, it was a little overwhelming.”
But it’s a new season, and it’s a much different team, but this head coach realizes what winning the final game of the season does for expectations. Winning is contagious, and winning is addictive, too.
“But see, there is a level of expectation that we place on ourselves, too, and I think that’s something that’s a little bit different,” Daugherty said. “We’ve made the playoffs the past five years, and it’s the first time our program has done that since Wheeling Park opened, so now we understand the importance of the season.
“So I think that beats half the battle because our kids understand that success is expected now,” the head coach continued. “Expectations are expectations. As long as we work hard and give it everything we have on Friday, I’ll be perfectly fine with whatever happens. I’ve been a part of losses and I’ve been a part of some really big wins, and we have grown from both.”
A New Season
A wide receiver, a running back, an offensive lineman, a defensive lineman, a linebacker, and a defensive back all were named to the Class AAA All-State teams by the West Virginia Sports Writer’s Association a little more than a week after Wheeling Park’s final victory, and each of those players turned the tassel last June.
Gone from the Patriots’ roster are Elijah Bell, Savion Johnson, Austin Curnes, Dustin Dominiguez, Clay McDonald, and Jamez Cole, all of whom filled enormous roles with Daugherty in 2015.
“There’s no doubt we lost a lot of talent to graduation,” he said. “But I thought our team in 2013 was just as good as what we last year but we didn’t end that year with a state championship. I believe to win a state championship a lot of things have to go right and you have to stay healthy throughout the season.
“It’s more than just being the best team in the state,” he said. “And we did graduate a bunch of very talented young men, but that just means that now, we have a bunch of younger kids and it’s their turn to step up. That’s what happened last year. They stepped up. So I see this season as another chance for another group of kids. People do not know their names, but they still have to step up and make the plays.”
So who will run it like Johnson, and who will catch Wilkinson’s passes as Bell did so often?
“You can’t replace players like that. You just don’t,” Daugherty said. “You only coach one Savion Johnson, and you only coach one Elijah Bell, but you have to hope that the kids took a little bit away from what players like them and the other seniors gave to the program.
“I think something that sometimes gets lost concerning Savion and Elijah is not only were they great players for us, but they were great people, too, in the hallways of the high school. As the head coach you hope that our kids saw that and will choose to emulate that,” the he continued. “But do we have another 6-foot, 235-pound tailback? No. No, we don’t. But that means we’ll have to just change some things. We’ll have to be a little bit different and we’ll coach to what we do have.”
But “Team. Win. Brotherhood. All. In” did not graduate, and that union “Doc” insisted on has returned yet again to the collective mindset with the 65 varsity players who began preseason workouts earlier this week.
“That started in 2012, and it’s something that we have again this year,” Daugherty said. “And I thought in 2013 those kids really bought in and made it grow. That’s when it became more than just a phrase that sounded good. And after last year I don’t see it going away. In fact, I think it just got strengthened.
“By now it’s something that our youngest players heard about and wanted to be a part of when they were not yet in high school,” he said. “And yeah, winning a state championship enhances it. It proved that it works, and it proved to the players that we have now that it is a very important ingredient to our success on and off the field.
“The important part for our players to realize they are a member of an army of 65 young men, and they have a job to do,” he added. “As long as they are concentrating on doing their job, they are a part of that army.”
More than a Game
Daugherty is most proud of the fact that Wheeling Park High’s football program can now boast that several of his past Patriots players are competing for colleges near and far from the Upper Ohio Valley.
“And I think they will do very well on the next level,” Daugherty said. “One of the things that we are doing very well at Wheeling Park right now is demanding a certain type of commitment and a certain kind of work ethic. I believe Wheeling Park and this valley has had some very talented players in the past, but sometimes when those players have moved on, they have found that they were not ready for the next level.
“That college grind is very difficult,” he said. “Some of those kids were not able to stay the course with those college programs. But this year the Wheeling Park football program will have 17 kids on college rosters this season, and that’s amazing. Is it Ohio State and LSU? Maybe not, but we’ll have those 17 kids on those rosters, and that means they are getting their education and getting it for free.”
But this is more than football to this head coach because he realizes the vast majority of those student/athletes will not attract the attention of college recruiters or NFL franchises.
Is it possible? Yes. But is it likely?
Because he knows the answer, Daugherty has chosen to operate this football program with every young man’s future in mind.
“And that’s why we want to see our players sit in the front of the classroom, and we have a sheet that teachers can fill out for us so we know how they are behaving in their class. But we also want to know if he is being a leader,” he explained. “Is he sitting there just taking up space, or is he is a leader?
“If we can get 65 kids to walk our hallways and be leaders, we’re going to change our school for the better, and during the past three or four years we have had those kinds of leaders on our football team,” “Doc” continued. “We have a program at our high school that involves freshmen mentoring and those mentors are voted in by the teachers. A lot of our football players have been voted in, and I think it’s because we are requiring them to live in a way that allows them to be a leader in our school.
“I believe,” Daugherty added, “that if you are a leader in your school you’ll be a leader in life, too.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)