Timberwolves ‘look bigger,’ Bulldogs ‘look faster,’ AAA title-game coaches say of rivals
WHEELING — By this time, Spring Valley and Martinsburg should know each other pretty well.
After all, when they square off at noon Saturday in Wheeling Island Stadium, it’s the third straight season they’ve met in the Class AAA football state finals. That’s never happened before since the SSAC started sponsoring championship games in 1947.
So their coaches should be able to spot any differences with the opposing side, and indeed they have.
“Well, they look bigger, if that’s possible,” said Martinsburg head coach Dave Walker of the No. 2 Timberwolves.
“I think they look faster,” Spring Valley head coach Brad Dingess said of the No. 1 Bulldogs. “Probably not quite as big on size, but faster all around.”
However, it might well be the other side of the coin — Martinsburg’s muscle or Spring Valley’s speed — that sways the balance when the unbeaten teams (both 13-0) tangle in the Super Six. Martinsburg comes into the game as the two-time defending champ and has strung together a state-record 41 straight wins over the past three seasons, including victories over the Wolves in the 2016 and 2017 title games.
It’s no secret that Spring Valley likes to hammer the ball between the tackles with a huge offensive line that sports as many as four NCAA Division I recruits. The Timberwolves churn out about 300 rushing yards per game on 50-plus carries.
But opponents have found the going tough against Martinsburg’s slightly smaller defensive front. The Bulldogs allow only 52 yards per game and 1.75 per carry.
“Defensively, we’ve got to try and keep them off the field,” Walker said. “I’m sure their game plan is no different against us than everybody else. They want to grind you and keep the ball away from you, so we’ve got to play as well as we can defensively.”
Spring Valley’s secret weapon — one it hasn’t flashed much in past meetings with Martinsburg — is some skill-position speed.
Senior running back-receiver Graeson Malashevich, considered one of the leading candidates for the Kennedy Award as the state’s top player, averages a healthy 25.9 yards per catch, with 14 of his 34 receptions going for touchdowns. And fellow receiver Nate Ellis averages 24.3 yards per catch, with five of his 13 grabs producing scores.
With talent like that on the flanks, strongarmed Timberwolves quarterback Will Adkins has thrown for 17 TDs against just one interception.
“They are a little more diverse with what they’re doing offensively,” said Walker, who earlier this season became the all-time winningest prep football coach in West Virginia. “I think they have the ability to throw the football more so than they have in past years playing them, which makes them a lot better football team offensively.
“They just do what they do so well, and they’re so big. On offense, when we have the ball, we know we’re going to have limited possessions, so we have to do something with it when we have it.”
Martinsburg is certainly capable of doing a lot with the football when it’s on offense.
Senior Grant Harman, a two-time first-team all-state defensive back, shares the quarterbacking duties with junior Elijah Banks. They’ve combined to throw for 38 touchdowns with just five interceptions for an offense that averages 245 yards on the ground and 203 through the air.
Martinsburg’s most dangerous receivers are returning starters Jarod Bowie (46 catches, 806 yards, 13 TDs) and Chelo Teneval (29 catches, 542 yards, eight TDs).
In last year’s 44-16 Martinsburg victory, Bowie caught five passes for 87 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown.
“They do a good job with their quick passing game,” Dingess said of the Bulldogs. “Then they take some shots deep, and do a good job with the read pass-option stuff.”
Spring Valley’s improved team speed could also help defend those long Martinsburg passes. The Wolves picked off Capital’s Kerry Martin Jr. four times in last week’s semifinals, short-circuiting the Cougars’ feared deep pass game.
The Bulldogs’ running game is at least the equal of Spring Valley’s with a three-pronged attack that features sophomore Naieem Kearney (1,136 yards, 19 TDs), Harman (758 yards, 14 TDs) and senior Dwayne Grantham (670 yards, 11 TDs).
“They run the quarterback more now,” Dingess said, “so that’s another dimension you’ve got to deal with.”
Grantham is a WVU commitment who missed much of the regular season because of a leg injury, giving Kearney his chance to shine. Now healthy again, Grantham gives Martinsburg a dangerous duo at tailback, as he averages 12.9 yards per carry and Kearney 10.1. They can hit a home run at any time from anywhere on the field.
Dingess certainly knows what his defense is up against.
“You can’t give them an easy touchdown with a missed assignment,” he said. “You’ve got to make them drive the field on you. Limit their passing and shorten the game a little bit. You know they’re going to put points on the board.”
Dingess also thinks it’s important to keep the clock running when his team has the ball.
“We’ve got to get some drives going,” he said. “Get some first downs. And even if we don’t score, we’ve still got to keep the ball and we can’t turn it over. They’ve got a bunch of tough kids who run to the football.”
WEST VIRGINIA SUPER SIX
No. 2 SPRING VALLEY (13-0) vs. No. 1 MARTINSBURG (13-0)
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Wheeling Island Stadium, Wheeling
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: 92.7-FM and 98.5-FM The Planet. Tailgate show from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.