Avoiding crazy in lieu of normal is the goal this week, although the probability of that happening is ever so slight because, frankly, it is THE state championship.
And it’s Capital High again, and there’s a score to settle with the Cougars that dates back 24 years. That was last time the Wheeling Park Patriots played for the Class AAA football title, and the team’s appearance in 1991 was the first ever in the high school’s 39-year history.
“As parents we want to do so many things to make this even more special for everyone involved,” said Debbie Wilkinson, mother of sophomore quarterback Cross Wilkinson. “But at the same time we realize we have to keep it as normal as possible because the team is used to a certain routine.
“Plus, some of the boys are pretty superstitious, and we are aware of that,” she continued. “So we’re going to find the balance between special and even keel.”
The Patriots and their coaches were the guests of Quaker Steak & Lube last night, and today a pep rally will be staged at the stadium at 6:30 p.m. In an effort to attract as many fans as possible for Saturday’s noon game, faithful fans are promoting a “Sink the Island” campaign.
“I didn’t grow up here, but I have heard the stories about the huge crowds, and I know it would mean a lot to the boys if there was a crowd like that,” Wilkinson said. “One thing that’s for sure is that I will be there screaming for them. That’s my role. I’ve always been the cheerleader.”
The Wilkinsons have some history when it comes to claiming West Virginia titles. While Debbie was a cheerleader for Xavier University, father Jeff was a member of the 1980 Wheeling Park basketball team that earned the state championship, and brother Taylor won a pair of titles (2002 and 2004) in football for the Maroon Knights of Wheeling Central Catholic.
“That’s why I know winning this game would mean so much to our son,” she said. “I am nervous for my son but, I am very excited for this team. I think we’re going to win. I really do.
“This team is a family, and that’s how they are going about this season and how they will go about it this Saturday, and that’s because of Coach Doc (head coach Chris Daugherty) and the other coaches who have prepared them,” Wilkinson said. “It’s been fun to watch because you’ve been able to see that bond between them get stronger and stronger, especially after the loss.”
In 1991 the Patriots entered the state championship game against Capital High with only one loss (to Brooke), and the same will be the case this Saturday afternoon. On Sept. 25, the Bruins recorded a come-from-behind 21-18 victory.
“Cross was very quiet, and I know he was upset after that game,” Wilkinson said. “He has always been his own worst critic, but that loss was a turning point for him and everyone on this team. They came together, and they have built upon that defeat to become an even better football team.
“Cross has always been that kid who is very coachable, and he listens, and he accepts and uses constructive criticism to improve even more,” she continued. “And he understands that there is pressure, but that’s where his faith in his coaches and his teammates really shows.”
The student-athlete’s path to being named the starting quarterback as a sophomore has been one that’s been filled with dedication, competition, and determination.
“I think everyone knew that we were going to have a special group of players this year, especially with Savion coming back from his knee injury,” Wilkinson said. “But everyone also knew that Killian Coyne graduated and that the team needed a new quarterback, so Cross got himself ready to compete for the varsity job even though he’s only a sophomore.
“He didn’t play baseball last spring so he could train for this, and he also knew that there were no guarantees. But this is his passion,” the mother continued. “I am impressed with Cross every day, and I just make sure he’s well fed and he gets plenty of rest. Other than that, we let him do his thing.”
The Wheeling Park signal caller also has benefitted from training with Chad Broadwater, owner of State Farm Insurance in Warwood and once a decorated quarterback for Shepherd University. After graduating from Parkersburg High in 1993, Broadwater was the Rams’ starter for three seasons and guided his teams to a pair of conference championships.
“Chad has been huge with the development of Cross as a quarterback. He’s made a really big difference,” Wilkinson insisted. “Our son has always known what he’s wanted to do, and Chad and his coaches at Wheeling Park have taught him so much.”
Broadwater, a friend of the Patriots football program, initially encountered Cross during the young man’s freshman season.
“And when I saw him I was impressed with his raw, natural ability to throw a football. But there were some things that he needed to work on,” he explained. “His footwork and mechanics in the pocket were lacking, so when I was asked to start working with him, I was excited.
“First of all he is a great kid with a great family. He has a work ethic that is second to none. He has improved tremendously because of that work ethic and his coachability,” Broadwater continued. “You tell him something once, and you never have to tell him again. The improvement with him throughout the season comes down to him being much more comfortable in the offense and the plays they call.”
Of course handing off to senior Savion Johnson has proven a pivotal part of the gig, and Johnson has rolled up 1,770 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on 253 carries for an offensive unit that has averaged 40.1 points per game on the way to an 11-1-1 record.
Cross has completed 106 passes on 168 attempts for 2,142 yards, 25 touchdowns, and six interceptions. His primary target, Elijah Bell, has hauled in 46 catches for 1,142 stripes and 16 TD catches.
“Cross’ footwork has gotten so much better than when we first started,” Broadwater explained. “I’ve told him that he throws the ball only as well as his feet and lower body allow him to. Cross has taken that and now is throwing with a great base underneath him.
“I teach the quarterback position from the ground up, and in my opinion your arm strength is determined from the man above and you’re born with it,” he continued. “I’ve seen Cross grow as a leader on and off the field, and his poise on the field is tremendous for a 16-year-old. He is a special kid on a very special, talented team.”
(Cover photo by Kimberly Miller; other photos provided by the Wilkinson Family)