WHEELING - The last time the Madonna football team was still in pads this time of year, it was expected.
This year, it's been a little bit different.
That's not to say the 2012 version of the Blue Dons didn't have Wheeling Island Stadium the first Saturday of December as its goal, but the road south is different three years later.
POUNCING ON THE BALL — Weirton Madonna’s Josh Martin pounces on a Tucker County fumble during the second overtime of Saturday’s West Virginia Class A semifinals. The Blue Dons scored on the next drive for a 20-14 victory.
-- Fred Younce
"We kept telling the kids throughout the year, 'you don't know how good you can be. We see it in you. You guys just have to believe in yourselves.'" said second-year Madonna coach Doug Taylor.
That conversation never happened in 2009, when some members of the current squad had big brothers playing on the 14-0 state championship Dons.
For Taylor, something changed at the end of Week 9.
"I think when they came back to beat Steubenville Catholic Central, 21-20, the light went on," he said. "It's been a whole different team, a whole different demeanor in practice.
"Right now, they know they are good enough to win the state title."
Fueled by three playoff wins, the last two where the defense stepped up to show itself, No. 4 Madonna will take on No. 3 Wahama at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wheeling Island Stadium in the West Virginia Class A state championship game.
The Blue Dons are coming off a 20-14 double-overtime win at No. 1 Tucker County on Saturday.
"I know they're winners," Taylor said of his 29-member team. "When their backs are against the wall, I can count on them. They play hard for each other and that's what we tell them. It's a family within that locker room. We're playing for each other.
"A lot of times we will tell them to look around and look into each other's eyes because that's who they're playing for. They buy into that and I want them to. We coach for that. We coach for them. It's a good feeling, a good family relationship."
Madonna has four seniors - Garrett Hypes, James Fulciniti, Quintin Hukill and Charlie Kotten - who were freshmen in 2009.
"We have four seniors we're going to lose this year and we hate to lose them," said Taylor. "They've done a lot for the program. They've sold out for what we're trying to teach. We appreciate them and we want them to go out as winners."
But, to get to this week, the Blue Dons had to survive last week.
"The more I watched Tucker County over the week (leading to the game), that team just kept getting better and better and better," said Taylor. "I knew it was going to take a great defensive performance."
Madonna quarterback Ross Comis was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the first overtime.
"We know those things are going to happen," said Taylor. "Good teams will find a way to win. We were able to come out on defense and hold them to a long field goal attempt, which they didn't make."
The Blue Dons' defense stayed on the field as possessions alternate in overtimes.
"We knew we were playing against a good football team, but I had a feeling our defense would hold again," said Taylor. "I felt good then."
Tucker County had the first possession of the second overtime and faced a third-and-eight from the 18. Quarterback Derek Nestor dropped back to pass and was crushed from behind by a blitzing Eliott Nero, who forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Josh Martin to end Tucker County's opportunity.
"When we got the sack and the fumble in the second overtime and got the ball, I told our guys on the headphones, 'this is it. We're going to win this one,'" said Taylor.
"At that time we were talking to Ross about our play options, he said 'hey, I want the ball.' If I have that type of player who wants the ball, I'm going to give it to him. We tightened our chin straps up, went straight ahead and got it done in three plays."
Comis scored from the 1 after runs of 9 and 10 yards.
"Our offensive line knew it too," said Taylor. "I think they had a sense. It was like blood in water. They knew it was time to put it away and get out with a win. And, that's what they did.
"Our offensive line had their moments, but when they needed to, they went after it and got the job done."
The finals match-up most people thought was coming did not come to fruition because Wahama knocked off No. 2 Magnolia in New Martinsville, 10-7, on a 27-yard field goal by Zack Wamsley with 25.3 seconds left in the game.
White Falcons coach Ed Cromley had a lot of confidence in his senior.
"A lot," he said. "We made a mistake several years ago, that we thought we had a good player who was younger. We put the ball in his hands when it was time to win the game and it didn't happen. Learning from that, you have a senior kicker, he's going to do it, if anybody will."
Wahama is 13-0 with the only close game in the first 11, a Week 2 25-12 win at Trimble.
It beat Greenbrier West, 21-12, in the quarterfinals and the Blue Eagles last week.
"We talked to kids that it was going to be a dogfight before the game and to stay in there no matter what happens and try to be in the game at the end of the game and we were," said Cromley. "It worked out perfectly for us.
"I thought that some of our backs stepped it up and ran inside when, in other games against lesser opponents, they took the outside route. We stuck it up in there, which we try to get them to do, but, usually we have enough speed to get outside and take the easy way.
"We wanted to get to the edge, but sometimes that edge appears real quick and you have to get up in there real quick and not count on it being open longer. We did have a set where we tried to run up inside, tried to blow everybody off the ball and shove up the field, but there were really strong and played with good leverage. We couldn't get that done, either.
"Since the playoffs have started, we've told the kids that three or four yards is a good deal. We spent the season looking to break big ones and we know that's not going to happen in the playoffs. We've talked about that for several weeks."
In defeating Magnolia, Cromley said keeping an eye on all-everything Magnolia senior Stephen Rogalski was the No. 1 priority.
"We paid a lot of attention to No. 5 and where he was," said the coach. "I thought we did a pretty good job of controlling him. The remainder of people who weren't paying attention to him, they had to watch the back (Drew Keller), because both of those guys are really good."
Wahama and Madonna played last year with the White Falcons earning a 33-0 victory at Fairmont State.
"We are different from what we were last year and so are they," said Taylor. "They handed it to us at Fairmont State. We're going to have our work cut out for us.
"I knew Wahama was a good football team. They are undefeated and No. 3 in the state for a reason. For them to be able to go into New Martinsville and beat Magnolia just shows how good of a football team they are."