By Stephen Smoot
Playing through the fire of inexperience in one season often forges the foundation of success in the next. Coach Zac Smith expects that football truism to apply in 2022 as the Pendleton County High School Wildcats prepare to take on a schedule saturated with challenges and opportunities.
“We were young last year,” Coach Smith explains, “We started a bunch of sophomores that hadn’t played much, two juniors too.”
In addition to the on the job training that goes with playing young and inexperienced players, Coach Smith emphasized its contribution to building a culture of winning as well. “We got that buy-in culture re-established.” He added that “they want to learn and are easily coached.”
Coach Smith expects that will substantially improve one key element, execution. As he explains, “it’s not always what you do, but how you do it.”
Every football team’s success starts up front. As Coach Smith explains, “we’ve got to win the line of scrimmage to win games. On our offensive and defensive lines, we put the pressure on them this year.” The offensive line coalesces around senior leadership at key positions. Three-year starter and senior Blake Harris can divide time between guard and the crucial center position when needed while serving as a “vocal leader” for the offense.
Coach Smith also expects strength and consistency from his tackles. Adam Ruddle will bring significant experience to the all-important left tackle position while senior Lukas Redman will anchor the right tackle spot. Experienced juniors Tanner Huffman, Tyler Huffman, and Alex Reyes will also help to clear the way on the offensive line.
Line play will form a vital part of establishing the success of Pendleton County’s venerable spread offense system, but execution begins with the quarterback position. James Vincell earned the starting nod in half of the games last year, posting 40 completions in 82 attempts for 324 yards. Coach Smith stated that “the experience he gained is valuable.” Even better, he sees stronger confidence this year in his quarterback’s reads and throws.
Beside him in the backfield, Dillon Smith serves as another formidable weapon for the Wildcats. Coach Smith describes his running back as “good in the open field and a very hard-nosed runner.” Last year, Smith averaged just a hair shy of four yards a carry, earning 292 yards in 74 carries.
Helping to keep the spread offense wide open are a set of versatile and dangerous receivers. Coach Smith has great expectations for the corps, led by senior Clayton Kisamore who led the team last year with 13 receptions for 217 yards. Also challenging defenses will be the rangy Connor Armentrout, a three-year player who earned a number of starts last year and averaged more than 11 yards per reception. Rounding out the aerial attack is Dusty Smith who last year earned 63 yards in 13 receptions. Coach Smith described him as “a good little slot receiver” expected to make a big contribution this year. Senior Xavier Ellis rounds out what should be a very productive receiving corps.
On defense, the Wildcats expect Dillon Smith to continue to lead the unit at linebacker. Last year, Smith had 88 tackles and eight tackles for loss, leading the team in both categories. He also racked up three sacks. Senior Terry Harvey returns at defensive line, having 31 tackles. Coach Smith expects both Harvey and Redman “to make an impact.” Ruddle also returns with 19 tackles and a sack last season. Harris also earned 19 tackles from his defensive line position.
The Wildcats enjoy tremendous leadership and experience at defensive back. Last year Dusty Smith was third on the team in tackles with 43. Coach Smith also has high expectations for Armentrout and Kisamore. Each had one interception last year and posted 36 and 17 tackles respectively.
Senior experience on defense at both line and defensive back will allow for more creativity in bringing pressure. While it “depends on what the offense is giving up,” the defense may deviate more this year from their standard 4-3, possibly adding five-man fronts and other sets to challenge high powered offenses.
Coach Smith also praised the impact of assistant and former head coach Gary Smith,who pioneered the spread offense at Pendleton County in the 90s. Today, he coaches the linemen and assists with defensive coordination. “He’s been a great mentor and a great assistant.”
One area in which Pendleton County will certainly lead the state is in sets of twins on the roster. Both the Smith and Huffman family will have dual representatives helping to drive the team toward success.
While one should never make too much of the opening week, Pendleton County’s seasonal opponents went 5-4, combining for 262 points and allowing 263. This excludes Southern Garrett, Maryland, who, like Pendleton County, enjoyed the dubious advantage of commencing the season with an open date.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the Wildcats will open their season at PCHS with the always dangerous James Monroe. Last week, the Mavericks steamrolled Sherman 41-6, rolling up 433 yards of total offense. Cooper Ridgeway starred, accounting for 149 yards rushing with two touchdowns on the ground. He caught two passes for 61 yards and a third score. James Monroe, a playoff team last year, dropped to single A for the 2022 campaign.