It was emotional.
Because of all the adversity encountered by this family for a while; because of the wonderment about Savion Johnson and his recovery; because of the ALS diagnosis for former head coach, assistant athletic director, and father of senior Nick, Mark Nardone; because of the sudden death of Beth Salatino, mother of offensive center Sal.
It was emotional, too, because it had only happened once before more than two decades ago. It was the state football championship; it was in Wheeling; and in the same stadium these Patriots call home; and in front of a record-setting crowd the Wheeling Park Patriots accomplished what some thought was never possible.
Click here to see many more photos in our State Championship Photo Gallery:
23-15. History was made, and more than 10,000 spectators saw a popular prophecy come true.
“At the beginning of the year I did think this was possible,” admitted Patriots Head Coach Chris Daugherty. “I knew what kind of kids we had, and it’s a special group, and they are special for more reasons than football. They care. They’re good kids in the hallways. They are good kids on the street. Anytime you have a group like this, you know that you have a fighting chance.
“We had some talent, too, and of course that played into it, but we’ve had talent before and didn’t get to where we did today,” he continued. “This is something none of us will ever forget. It doesn’t matter what happens; you can’t take this away from this football program or from anyone else involved.”
Daugherty, although rushed most of the day preparing his team for this 12th victory, said he did notice the record crowd and the number of fans from other OVAC schools.
“If you look back at 1991, and if you are 40 and over, you remember that loss,” said the head coach. “That’s why I said this morning that we were playing for today’s football team, but also to give our city and our Valley a victory. A state championship. And they got behind us today.
“We felt it the last couple of weeks. It really felt as if the Valley was getting behind us,” Daugherty continued. “This whole week leading to this state championship has just been unbelievable. The support that we received from our school system, from our city, and from everyone from around the Valley has just been amazing.”
The executive director of the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletic Commission, Bernie Dolan, is a former Wheeling Park football coach and athletics director, and he, too, appreciated the huge crowd and across-the-board support for the Patriots.
“I think the people have been excited in Wheeling for this to happen, and this kind of crowd just proves that to everyone,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in Wheeling could wait for this morning and then wait for this game to begin.
“This game and this crowd are a testament to why we want football here in Wheeling for the Super Six,” Dolan continued. “When I was watching people coming into the stadium for this game this morning, not everyone was wearing Capital or Wheeling Park clothes. I saw sweatshirts and jackets from all of the high schools in this area.
“Wheeling Park has waited a long time to get here, and I think everyone wants to see it. This is 40 years in the making.”
“Without a doubt the entire Upper Ohio Valley has come out today to support Wheeling Park High School, and it’s a beautiful thing to see,” said Wheeling Park Athletic Director Dwaine Rogers. “This feels good, but I’m not one of those people who thought our football program had a monkey on its back because there’s been a lot of success for football at Wheeling Park.
“They’ve worked hard. They deserve this. Luck is part of it when it comes to football, but you make that for yourself, and they did that,” he said. “But I know we’re really excited, and it does kind of erase the loss in 1991.”
Veteran sports journalists said the large crowd and the community support received by the Patriots were not surprising to them.
“I knew there would be a crowd like this here today because of all of the circumstances surrounding this team and this state championship game,” said Wheeling Park graduate (1985) Rich Stevens, former sports writer for both the Charleston Daily Mail and the Wheeling newspapers. “This is a record crowd for any of the Super Six games since this came to Wheeling in 1994; trust me on that, and it’s really a great thing to see.”
“We’re seeing a great level of support from the community today, and I think it’s something people have been waiting for so long from Wheeling, and they finally got a chance to come out and enjoy it, too.,” said WTRF’s Scott Nolte. “I think every Ohio Valley resident who came here today came to see Wheeling Park win, and we’ve seen it in the past with the Super Six in Wheeling for other teams.”
A pair of Ohio County commissioners could not have agreed more.
“This Valley comes together for so many things, so I am not really surprised to see what I am seeing today,” said Ohio County Commissioner Orphy Klempa. “It wouldn’t matter who was playing in this; the Valley would be here.
“I have seen people I know from Bellaire and Martins Ferry, and I have seen people from Wheeling and Moundsville,” he said. “That’s how this works I think, and I think it’s also because this is the first time Wheeling Park is playing for the state championship here on the Island.”
“It looks like it’s a Wheeling Park thing, but if you look even closer, you can tell that there are people here from all over the Ohio Valley rooting for the Patriots today,” said Randy Wharton, president of the Ohio County Commission. “I’m willing to bet there are some fans and some Wheeling Park fans who have had to sit on the other side because of how many other Wheeling Park supporters came out so early before the game.
“This area loves good football, and it doesn’t matter if you are from the West Virginia side or the Ohio side,” he said. “I believe everyone is out here to support the Valley’s team in this game, and I think you can see how many people are standing and not sitting. There’s no room left in here, and I think that says a lot about where we live.”
West Virginia Class AAA State Champions – The Wheeling Park Patriots.
And 24 seniors graduate. Fifteen juniors and 20 sophomores will return for another quest.
Too early to talk about next year?
“We have a lot of good kids coming back to our program next year,” Daugherty said. “We like to think we’re creating a program and not be a flash in the pan.
“This is the first time in school history that we have qualified for the playoffs five years in a row, and I thought we were good enough in 2013 to win the state championship, but we came up short in the semifinals,” he said. “Right now I don’t know where we will be next year, but I know I will have good kids who will work very hard to be the best they can be. They care about our school, and they care about our team.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney and LeeRoy, Video by Matt DiLorenzo)