PARKERSBURG, W.Va. -- Keyser was expected by many high school football coaches and fans to be the primary obstacle to Wayne in the Pioneers' 2013 pursuit of a third consecutive Class AA state championship.
And then the season started.
The Golden Tornado, who returned All-State players at linebacker (5-foot-10, 220-pound senior Danny Fife) and offensive line (6-1, 255-pound senior Drew Roy) from a team that finished as the state's runner-up in 2012, opened the year with a 45-22 loss at Wheeling Park. They followed that setback two weeks later with a 24-7 loss at rival Cumberland Fort Hill, Md., to start the year 1-2. Before September was halfway over some guessed whether Coach Sean Biser's team would reach the playoffs, much less challenge for a title.
Nearly two months later Keyser looks more battle-tested than many teams in the Class AA playoff field, and the Tornado is again a threat. Wheeling Park is 9-1 and owns the No. 5 seed for the Class AAA playoffs. Fort Hill is unbeaten and opens its playoff run in Maryland this week.
"The three teams we've lost to have two losses between them," Biser said Sunday at the Secondary School Activities Commission offices. "If going 7-3 is having a down year then I guess we're having a down year. I think that's a compliment to our program."
Keyser has the No. 10 seed and visits No. 7 seed Fairmont Senior (8-2) on Friday night in the first round of the playoffs.
"I think we're improving. I think we're much better off now than we were earlier in the season," Biser said. "A lot of that had to do with continuity in our lineup. I know everybody said, 'Oh, you have all these kids coming back' but we've lost some people due to injury."
Biser added that at one point the team had seven starters out of the lineup with injuries. The bug hit at a crucial time for the team, the week Keyser went to No. 2 seed Bridgeport and lost 41-0 on Oct. 11. Four of those players are gone for the year, but others such as Roy, have returned to the lineup.
Since then, Keyser has beaten Class AAA Jefferson 47-41, Class AA No. 4 seed Frankfort 42-3 and Mountain Ridge, Md., 46-0.
"He's a two-way starter for us, and he's been All-State a few years and he's a heck of a football player," Biser said of Roy. "He definitely gives us some depth on the inside and is a force on our offensive and defensive lines."
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THE POLAR Bears will be without leading rusher Noah Harmon for their first-round game. Harmon carried 97 times for 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games.
Fairmont Senior's top available rusher for the game is Malik Boddy, who has 64 carries for 418 yards and five touchdowns.
"Noah will not be playing this Friday," said Polar Bears Coach J.L. Abbott, who returned to the program this season after a stint as an assistant at Fairmont State. Abbott coached Fairmont in 2006, when quarterback Kyle Allard won the Kennedy Award.
"We're playing some pretty good ball right now. Besides Noah we're pretty healthy," Abbott said. "The kids are excited to be back in the playoffs. They've missed it the last couple of years."
Fairmont Senior's last playoff appearance was as a Class AAA school in 2009, when it lost to Capital in the first round.
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MINGO CENTRAL is in its second year as a member of the Cardinal Conference, but the No. 9 seed Miners (8-2) did not meet their first round opponent - No. 8 seed and Cardinal Conference member Sissonville (9-1) - in the regular season.