CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Wayne High School left itself with a tough act to follow after the Pioneers won their second consecutive Class AA state championship in 2012.
Good thing for its fans that Wayne has been winning titles while somehow maintaining a "Wait 'til next year" mentality commonly relegated to runners-up and also-rans.
"Obviously, you try to treat each season as if it's a new thing," Wayne coach Tom Harmon said this week in preparation for the start of preseason practice Monday.
"As long as the players understand that it's a new beginning, they should be all right," he said. "A lot of it depends on how you work. I'm a big believer that how you play in a game depends on how you work."
Wayne, which went 14-0 last season and has won 23 consecutive games going back to Oct. 7, 2011, became the first team in the current playoff format to shut out opponents in the quarterfinal, semifinal and championship rounds when it blanked Nicholas County (47-0), Robert C. Byrd (18-0) and Keyser (35-0) to win its second consecutive title last season.
Charleston was the last to accomplish the feat when it shut out DuPont (24-0), North Marion (42-0) and Greenbrier East (17-0) to win the 1988 Class AAA state title in the last football season of the school's existence.
The Pioneers were the only Class AA team in history to pull of three consecutive playoff shutouts in the same season. Parkersburg (1978) is the only other team to do it since the playoffs expanded to eight teams, also in 1978.
Harmon's team averaged 49.9 points a game, gave up just 11.0 per game, and its first-team defense scored more touchdowns (seven) than it allowed (two). Wayne scored an average of 37.1 points in the first half of games last year.
One has to wonder how much room for improvement the Pioneers possess. At the same time, they don't have to improve on the 2012 season in order to win a third straight title. They just have to be better than everyone else, and that might very well be the case once again.
"The biggest concern for anybody is graduation," Harmon said. "You have kids who enter the program that you didn't recruit, because it's high school. You just have to trust you can be as good as you can be. Sometimes that ends in a state championship, and sometimes not so much."
Junior linebacker Mason Hodge has emerged as the heart, soul and poster boy for Wayne football. A second-team All-State pick as a freshman, Hodge moved onto the first team as a linebacker in 2012, and enters 2013 as one of the leading candidates for the Huff Award, given annually to the state's top defensive player.
At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, his physicality, speed and nose for the ball make him stand out on any crowded field.
"He's a player. He's the kind of guy who can change a game for you so he's a guy you want to be on the field," Harmon said. "You've got to have guys like that, but you've also got to have guys who support that role.
"I think, and I think Mason would be the first one to tell you this too, it's those guys who make the difference."
Hodge has also proven to be a nearly priceless asset on offense. The Pioneers' second-leading rusher, he carried 32 times for 731 yards and 12 touchdowns, an average of 22.8 yards per carry.