KINGWOOD — There’s been a different kind of buzz around the Preston Knights football program this season. There’s more positivity within the locker room and it’s extended into the Kingwood community and throughout the county.
“After our home scrimmage (against Grafton on Aug. 18), I saw more people talking and I noticed our players out there with more confidence,” PHS head coach Mark Deep said. “We knew some good things could happen this season.”
Good things almost happened right away in Week 1, but Preston fell by just one point on the road against Hampshire. Despite two more defeats in the following weeks, the team, and community, never gave up.
Good things came in Week 4.
The Knights knocked off Robert C. Byrd for the first time since 2017 with a 20-14 victory in front of one of the biggest home crowds in recent memory.
“That was the most people I’ve ever seen at one of our home games,” junior Ethan Likens said. “It was my first home win in three years at the high school and it felt great. We worked hard all week and it paid off.”
It almost didn’t happen.
One of the Knights’ worst stretches led to one of their biggest plays to secure the win. They found themselves down 14-13 with nine minutes to go in regulation after it took RCB just one minute to score following a three-and-out by Preston.
Sophomore quarterback Slaton Manko hit Cody Smith for a 50-yard gain and some hard-nosed rushing after that lifted the Knights into the end zone for the decisive score and victory.
“We talked about it in the huddle,” Likens said. “We knew that we were still in the game and a win was right in our hands. We took the ball right down the field and executed it how we wanted to.”
Deep felt that sequence was a microcosm of this young season, and what he has been helping to build throughout his tenure as head coach.
“We fought back and answered, we didn’t fold,” Deep said. “The kids fought through it and came out on top. That’s a great experience for the kids and they want to experience that again and again, be confident, earn it and just win it. Let’s not wait for something bad to happen, let’s go out and win the game.”
Despite two lopsided losses on the road at North Marion and Fairmont Senior, Deep saw several weeks of solid practices back home in Kingwood. The team didn’t fold against RCB last week, and in the weeks prior, they weren’t willing to pack it in with a long season still ahead of them.
“We prepared the last two weeks on ourselves,” Deep said. “We played two really good teams previously in North Marion and Fairmont Senior and we took that time to work on ourselves. There’s still a ton of improvement that we need to make, but the past two weeks showed that if we buckle down and look inward at things, we were going to get better and that paid off on Friday (against Robert C. Byrd) and we’re seeing the improvement this week too.”
At practice leading up to this week’s game against 3-1 East Fairmont, Deep has been asking his players, “Is one enough for you guys?”
One is not enough for Likens.
“Whenever we get rolling, I feel like we can’t stop. We’re all starting to play like that and good things will come from that,” he said. “You can tell once we’re on the field that it’s a much more positive attitude with things. We love our system and we were playing with much more confidence.”
Likens was last year’s defensive MVP as a sophomore. He recorded more than 100 tackles and is on pace for an even higher mark this season. He tallied 10.5 stops against RCB and had 14 to open the season at Hampshire.
East Fairmont comes into the game on a three-game winning streak, notching victories over Grafton, Berkeley Springs and Braxton County. The Bees opened the season with a 55-24 setback against North Marion, a team that shut out Preston in Week 2.
Building confidence, proving people wrong and overcoming adversity have helped establish this buzz around Preston this season. But nothing has been more powerful than the respect shown to the team’s head coach earlier this month.
On Sept. 6, Deep’s father, Michael, died at age 73 in his hometown of Cannonsburg, Pa. The Knights added “MD” decals to their helmets in honor of the coach’s dad.
“I was at a loss for words,” Deep said. “Football is family.”
BY MATTHEW PEASLEE