Back in the saddle again
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It seems like a millennium ago that Capital was really relevant in the Class AAA playoffs and, in a way, it is.
But now the Cougars are back - in the playoff semifinals that is - for the first time since 1999.
Capital (11-1), the No. 3 seed, rides to Martinsburg this weekend to face the No. 2 Bulldogs (11-1), the three-time defending state champions, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the artificial turf of Cobourn Field. The winner advances to the state championship game on Dec. 7 at Wheeling Island Stadium.
While Kanawha County rivals South Charleston and George Washington have each made two trips to the Super Six state finals in Wheeling during the previous five seasons, Capital has been coming up short.
But not anymore.
The Cougars cemented their return to the final four with a resounding 65-14 victory over defensive-minded University last Saturday, earning them a trip to the Eastern Panhandle.
"It's big,'' said senior lineman James Walton. "We got to the semifinals. But you know, our ultimate goal is to win the state championship, and we haven't won one since 1995. So we look to make it in 2013 and add it on to the charts.''
Another of Capital's top seniors, lineman Jaisson Dyer, said it "felt good'' to put the Cougars back on the map among the top AAA teams in West Virginia.
"This year, going 9-1 technically [in the regular season], it just kind of felt good,'' Dyer said. "I feel like if we do what we're supposed to do these next two weeks, it'll form that legacy that we're going to leave behind as seniors.''
Capital coach Jon Carpenter, now in his fourth year, thinks getting his program, a three-time state champion, back into the semifinals returns some normalcy, but knows it was an uphill battle on many fronts.
"Like I said when I first got the job,'' Carpenter said, "if we can keep our kids here, this is how it should look. Capital is the one that should be here. I don't know what it shows yet. We play this week, and we're just excited to be here.''
Carpenter acknowledged the difficulty Capital faces keeping prospective players from its feeder schools - Horace Mann and Stonewall Jackson - from transferring to other high schools in Kanawha County.
"Without bad-mouthing too many people on the school board,'' Carpenter said, "and everywhere in the county, that's been the hard part. Convincing these kids that if you stick together, good things will happen to you.
"They hear me tell them all the time that if your goal is to win a state championship and get a scholarship, that if you stick together, historically over time, your chances are good. That's the only psychology [I've used], trying to get out and 'recruit' them four years ago, and ever since then to stay together.''
Besides keeping his players in the system, Carpenter also faces the prospect of being a minority tenant at Laidley Field/University of Charleston Stadium, sharing the facilities with UC and being forced into later-than-optimum practices.
"That's been the biggest battle for us,'' Carpenter said. "A lot of things aren't right, but we're [thankful] for the few people we do have helping us with the lack of facilities. We don't have what everybody else has. Our kids don't get that. We don't have the best situation.
"[Clinton Giles, Capital's principal] and several people in this community have helped make it better the last couple of years. I'm just tickled to death for these kids. They bought into our recruiting pitch several years ago and they decided to stick together, and now something good's happening for them. Hopefully we can continue that.''
As far as knowing what to expect for the buildup surrounding the game - a new situation for most of Capital's coaches and support staff - Carpenter said he's chatted with some former state championship coaches in recent days.
"Roger Jefferson comes up every Tuesday,'' Carpenter said, "and last week, Ralph Hensley and Moe Townson were here. They've all been great to me.
"They all said, 'Play this just like you play the Week 1 games. There's no difference.' It still comes down to the basic stuff you taught back then. They've all pretty much told me the same things. 'Handle it like you did Week 1.' The weather's colder, but that's about it.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.