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No. 14 University set to face No. 3 Musselman in opening round of playoffs

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A few weeks ago following his win over Preston, University football coach John Kelley said he doesn’t think the postseason should happen. On Thursday, with his first playoffs berth since 2017 under his belt, he was steady in that mindset. 

“I remain adamant in my belief that especially with the spike in cases now, we should shut the playoffs down,” Kelley said. “We are not going to get a fair and equitable conclusion to this. There are going to be teams that are deserving that are going to be left out, and the thing to do in my opinion is to say, ‘Listen, played the season, we got everything in, let’s just shut it down.’ 

“Week to week, we’re going to have teams that won’t qualify that should qualify because of the COVID map, and based on the [Governor’s] press conference [Wednesday], it’s out of control. I just don’t know why we’re continuing this. We tried, the kids did the best they could, we all did the best we could, but it’s out of our hands.” 

Still, in the final weeks of the season, Kelley was also happy to share how proud he is of his team for working through an always changing season. 

“I’m proud of the kids that they endured it and did everything we asked them to do,” he said. “And that they got to play some football in not anything close to a regular football schedule.” 

But despite what Kelley or any other coaches around the state think about the playoffs, the WVSSAC decided to continue full steam ahead. After altering the rules last week to initially allow teams in orange and red counties to make the bracket, there are only a few days left to see if any forfeits come into play. But so far, the COVID-19 mapping system has Berkeley County in gold, meaning No. 14 UHS’s game at No. 3 Musselman (6-1) is still on. 

And that means Kennedy Award contender Blake Hartman, a leader in the Applemen’s top-tier offense, will get playtime for the first time in almost a month.

“First of all, we’re not going to shut down the run,” Kelley said. “He’s going to be a Kennedy Award winner. They grind you up, they’re real physical, have an excellent running quarterback and they can throw the ball effectively. What we have to do is limit their possessions – they score quickly – and then we can do something offensively to keep their offense off the field. But no one has a magic trick [to stop the offense.”

The good news for UHS is that none of its starters are out. Quarterback Chase Edwards was the biggest question mark coming into the playoffs after leaving the Morgantown game early two weeks ago and sitting out at Oak Hill, but after clearing concussion protocol, he will start at Musselman. Eliki Barner also left the game at MHS early, but he returned to action in Oak Hill last Friday for 103 yards and a touchdown. Kelley noted his luck but said he’ll need to establish a well-balanced attack early to take the pressure off Edwards, who will be facing a mammoth front group and pass rush.

“Their defense is very, very aggressive,” Kelley said. “They’re just flat out mean. So we have to get a short, controlled type passing game going because they bring the house. They’re a senior-laden team, I think they start 10 seniors on both sides of the ball. I worry whether we can pass-block them effectively – we have to get some kind of a run game going to take some of the pressure off. They don’t too many weaknesses on defense either, they’ve given up less than 10 points a game. Everyone wants to talk about Hartman and the offense, but their defense is pretty spectacular, too.” 

Still, as a coach who also missed nearly a month of practices and games, Kelley doesn’t think the missed time will slow down the Applemen entirely. 

“Talking to their coach [Brian Thomas], I think they’re really excited and chomping at the bit to get out and play, so I think they’ll come out with tremendous energy,” he said. “He’s worried a little bit. Who knows with kids – I don’t think it’ll have that much effect on them. They might be a little slow out of the gate but they’ll be right back to midseason form once we get started.” 

The winner of this game will advance to face the winner of No. 6 Spring Valley-No. 11 Hurricane. Currently, both teams are under gold designations. Kickoff at Waldeck Field is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday. 

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