CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the summer of 2008, Huntington High School quarterback C.J. Crawford transferred to Nitro because the Wildcat program provided him more opportunity to be noticed in pursuit of a college scholarship.
Crawford's father, Craig Crawford, was honest with media members about the move, and that honesty was like a flare to the Secondary School Activities Commission. The SSAC ordered the younger Crawford back to Huntington if he maintained hope of playing his senior year, as transfers for athletic purposes are not allowed under SSAC rules.
That the former Marshall tight end never took a snap at Nitro is irrelevant. At issue here is the stunning turn in fortune for the Highlanders - and for Nitro, in fact - since the summer of 2008. Huntington went 1-9 that year, its only win being a season-ending victory over Nitro.
The Wildcats are 8-44 since 2007.
For the second time in as many seasons Friday night, the Highlanders (3-0) will take to the field at Bob Sang Stadium in Huntington with the No. 1 ranking in Class AAA to face rival Cabell Midland (3-0).
The game also marks the second straight season the Knights enter the "Battle for the Shield" with the No. 2 ranking in the SSAC playoff ratings. They are currently tied with George Washington, Martinsburg and University.
Crawford's senior year was the last for Huntington before the school lured Billy Seals to Cabell County from Morristown, Tenn. Seals spent his first season razing the remains of what had become a dysfunctional program that often underachieved.
His first team went 0-10 but signs of life began to flicker. The 2010 Highlanders went 4-6, and in 2011 they reached the playoffs for the first time since 2004, going 8-4 and reaching the quarterfinals before falling at Martinsburg.
The installation of an off-season weight program was the first step in Seals' renovation. Next, he said, was an attitude adjustment.
"We had to instill a winning attitude. It took us 13 games to get that first win under our belt after I got here," he said. "Since then I think we've been pretty dang good. Winning is a habitual thing, the same way losing can be."
Fittingly for his background, Seals' team has thus far made its biggest impression on the defensive side of the ball. The Highlanders' defensive line has gained praise from opposing coaches throughout the Mountain State Athletic Conference since the preseason, and will again be key Friday night when facing the wing-T offense of Cabell Midland.
"For us it's kind of like baseball. It all starts up the middle," Seals said.