Madonna’s incredible turnaround continues

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED — Madonna’s Vince Pulice looks to pass against Wheeling Central on Oct. 28. (Photo by Joe Catullo)

WEIRTON — The last time the Madonna football team had a winning record and made the playoffs was in 2013 when it finished unbeaten and won its second ever state championship. Now, the Blue Dons (8-2) have fashioned an unexpected complete turnaround, and the Madonna community is excited.

With the 40-6 win last week at Clay-Battelle, the Blue Dons earned the eighth seed in the postseason, and with that comes a home game. It will be against another 8-2 team, Sherman, and will be played inside Jimmy Carey Stadium Friday with the opening kickoff set at 7:30 p.m.

“The people are very excited,” Madonna second-year head coach Darrin Hicks said. “There is a lot of activity around the school, and we’re looking forward to playing a good football team.”

The Blue Dons were able to shake off a two-game dry spell. Star running back Donavan Kirby, held under 200 yards in both games, returned to form in the win over the Cee Bees with 221 yards and broke the school rushing record of 2,150 yards set in 2004 by Luke Myers. Kirby will go into the playoffs with 2,361 yards on the ground.

The high-scoring Tide from Boone County will invade the stadium with a team full of weapons, according to Hicks.

“Sherman has a lot of team speed, big kids on the line and a solid kicking game,” he said. “They are an option team running out of multiple formations, and the quarterback is very good with the football in his hands.”

Sherman first-year head coach Michael Showalter said a lot of the same things about Madonna.

“Madonna doesn’t make it a secret about what they are going to do,” said Showalter, whose team is playoff-tested after making it to the postseason last year with the same 8-2 record. “They’re going to line up and play power football. What makes them a special team is they don’t make any secrets about what they’re doing, but what they do they do very well.

“They are well-coached and play well up front. They have a heck of a running back (Kirby) who is a really good north-south runner. H’es a strong kid that runs low. We’ve got our work cut out for us. We know that we’re going to have to come ready to play and play physical football game for four quarters.”

The teams have played one common opponent in Van. Madonna defeated Van 51-30, while the Tide threw a shutout with a 28-0 win over the Miners.

The guy that makes the Tide roll is junior J. T. Hensley (5-10, 155 pounds) at quarterback, and his story is very similar to that of Blue Don junior Gavin Dietrich.

Showalter said Hensley started at wide receiver and played some running back for the Tide the last two years but never played quarterback before. Dietrich was the placekicker for the Blue Dons as a freshman and sophomore, and he has made steady improvement as the signal caller in this his first year.

Sherman was shut out in the season opener, 6-0, by Tug Valley, which finished fourth in the Class A rankings with a 9-1 record. But as Hensley gained experience and confidence, the Tide began to roll up big scores and finished with 349 total points in the final nine games.

“J. T. probably is the best athlete on our team,” Showalter said. “This is his first year at quarterback. He played wide receiver for us the last couple of years, but we put him in there and didn’t put a whole lot him at first. We added as we went along. He’s one of those kids that is very bright. He’s also a competitor and a leader and a great athlete.

“He’s played well with more than 700 yards rushing and about 600 yards throwing. We don’t throw the ball much, but with his experience now we have loaded more passing into our offense the last couple of weeks. We worked him on dropping back to pass last week, and he made some pretty nice throws.”

Hicks describes Hensley as electric with the ball in his hands.

The Tide, though, features senior running back Ben Salmon (5-11, 160), who has more than 1,300 yards on the ground. Sherman runs a lot of option plays with Hensley and Salmon working together. Also, junior Seth Rinchich (5-11, 175) has run for more than 500 yards.

Hicks said he also has some concern about the big people Sherman has up front.

“They play a 3-4 defense, which is a little different from what we have seen,” he said. “Their linemen are very athletic with a good line backing corps. It is a mirror of their offense. They have a lot of speed, they are athletic and they have a lot of good athletes. Their line has looked impressive in all of the 10 films we have seen.”

Showalter says the big guys up front are probably the strength of his team.

“We made the playoffs last year and returned four of our offensive linemen,” he said. “We’re very experienced up front, and we feel comfortable with what we have. The same guys play offense and defense on the line, and they do a great job for us defensively, too.”

That could be an understatement. Showalter’s defense has yielded just 98 points while pitching three shutouts. The defense couldn’t contain No. 2 South Harrison (9-1) and the Hawks scored a 50-7 victory, but take those points away and they have given up just 48.

One of the big linemen that concerns Hicks is junior Layne Daniel (6-3, 355).

“He has started the past three years on the offensive line and the last two on the defense,” Showalter said. “He’s our nose guard and is very strong and athletic. He creates a lot of havoc in the middle.

“If we can’t win the battle up front, the way Madonna plays will be very exhausting. If we get behind and they can control the game with some long 12- or 13-play drives, it has a tendency to hurt team morale. We rely a lot on our defense and if we can limit the mistakes, I’m confident about our chances.”

Hicks said about the same thing as his keys remain the same as they have been all season — run the football and stop the run, limit the mistakes and turnovers, and win the kicking game.

“We just want to be 1-0 again this week,” he said.