MORGANTOWN — As Morgantown junior Jace Whetsell lined up deep for the kickoff, it felt as if the life had been sucked out of J.W. Ruby Stadium at MHS.
There were just 39 seconds remaining in the first-half against Parkersburg last Thursday, and the Big Reds had just scored their fourth consecutive touchdown.
It looked like halftime would be a nightmare for the Mohigans.
Whetsell had something else in mind.
“Right before we went out there [MHS senior] Luke Milne gave us a speech,” said Whetsell. “He was saying, ‘This game is ours and we just need to get a head on a shoulder and let our return guys do their thing.’ ”
As Whetsell lined up, he could feel the pressure mounting. The kick-off soared through the air, and came flying directly at him. He stepped up, fielded the kick, and took off to his left.
“We all knew we had to run towards their sideline, because they had been kicking away from our sideline all night,” he said. “So we planned to go left.”
Whetsell darted to the left hash before quickly juking inside at the 20-yard line to make a defender miss. Stopping on a dime, he then quickly cut back outside of the hash, maneuvering around a teammate and making a pair of Big Reds stumble and whiff at the 25.
From there, Whetsell sailed up the sideline, catching a lead block at the 50 before outrunning the last two Parkersburg players in sight. Whetsell gleefully charged in the end zone, already celebrating; the crowd erupted in cheers.
“Jace has a lot of wiggle in him and he’s hard to find back there. Just the way he was able to get up the field and turn the tide for us,” MHS coach Matt Lacy said. “That gave us a lot of energy going into halftime. We’re down over ten points if he doesn’t return that kick for a touchdown.”
With just one play, it seemed the game had completely changed. The atmosphere at Pony Lewis Field had completely shifted in just over ten seconds. Though MHS still entered halftime trailing by four, they carried their regained momentum back on the field in the second half, scoring 14-unanswered to retake the lead en route to a 45-35 victory.
“I think that return gave us the boost we needed before half,” Whetsell said. “After that everything just flowed well.”
Just days before kickoff, Lacy cited special teams as a peak early season concern due to the nature of how the game is played.
“They’re so hard to practice at full speed ,” Lacy said. “Most teams don’t show them in a scrimmage so it’s hard to prepare for with an opener.”
Funnily enough, it now appears the only ones who needed to be concerned heading in were the Big Reds — about how to stop Whetsell, Preston Fox, and the wealth of talent MHS has stocked in the return game.
“It’s huge that we had someone like that back there,” Lacy said. “We have a couple guys that can be back there too. Preston Fox can be back there, Jace – that’s the nice thing is that we have several guys that we can put back there and get the same result.”