By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Playoff football has become annual tradition for the Bluefield Beavers.
Nothing has changed this season, with the Beavers one win from Wheeling and Bluefield’s first appearance in the Class AA state championship since winning the school’s 10th state title in 2009.
“It is always fun to be in the playoffs,” Bluefield head coach Fred Simon said. “I can tell you that right now no matter how many times you are there.”
Bluefield (10-2) will visit Bridgeport (11-1) tonight in the Class AA state semifinals. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. The winner will play either Wayne or Robert C. Byrd for the state championship next weekend in Wheeling.
“We are happy to be where we are, that is exactly right,” Simon said. “We could be putting the equipment up and I would much rather be playing.
“I am pleased with where we are and we will see how things go.”
These teams have met once before, with the Beavers defeating the Indians 14-7 in the playoffs in 1995. Bluefield advanced to the state finals that season, losing 17-13 to Musselman.
Bluefield has reached at least the state semifinals in 11 of the last 19 seasons, last losing at this point at Ravenswood 24-19 in 2010.
Bridgeport provides an ample challenge to the Beavers, having won 10 games in a row since a 17-14 setback to Wheeling Park in the second week of the season. Wheeling Park is 11-1 on the season and will play top-ranked Huntington in the Class AAA state semifinals this weekend.
“They have lost one game to Wheeling Park,” Simon said. “They are well-coached, fundamentally sound, a good football team. They play good defense, run the ball well.”
Real well. Bridgeport isn’t fancy, just effective.
The Indians are led by tailback Anthony Bonamico, who is tops in Class AA and third in the state with 1,967 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 11.8 yards per carry.
He’s not all. Quarterback Anthony Caldera is also a threat on the ground, having run for 943 yards and 15 scores, and he lugs the pigskin at 9.0 yards an attempt.
They run behind a physical offense line led by 6-foot-4, 255-pound senior Tyler Morgan, who is also a linebacker and a leader on both sides of the ball. Brennan Duarte has made two field goals and 60 extra point kicks.
“A lot of (the others) are pretty good kids too,” Simon said. “They play well as a team.”
While Bridgeport likes to stick to the ground, the Beavers can do a little bit of everything. The thunder and lightning combination of powerful Corey Coppola (968, 13 td) and speedy D.J. Stewart (1,217, 22 td) is complemented by a passing game led by R.J. Bourne (1,568, 62.7 pct, 13 td) and D.J. Edwards (50-930, 9 td), who is closing in on 1,000 yards receiving for the season.
“It helps to have a big back running inside and pound on them and it helps us,” Simon said. “Then you have to Stewart and he is real quick and you have got Edwards to catch some passes for us and Bourne can run a little bit so it has been good.”
The emergence of Bourne, who has also run for 309 yards and seven scores, allowed the Beavers to move Edwards to receiver, and it has paid dividends for Bluefield, which scored 50 or more points in seven of eight regular season wins this season.
Francisco Desiderio has also turned into a potent weapon for Bluefield, leading the state among kickers in scoring with 85 points, making eight field goals and 61 extra points.
Bluefield got to this point with a 31-14 win over Ravenswood and a 26-14 decision against Nicholas County. The Indians stopped Roane County 54-20 and recorded their fifth shutout of the season last Saturday, blanking Fairmont Senior 28-0.
“We played two good teams and we found a way to win so I am very pleased,” Simon said. “We still have a ways to go, but we have had two wins so here we go.”
Bluefield had to change its preparation leading up the game, with the cold weather and snow forcing the Beavers inside three days this week, including a scheduled Thursday morning visit to Virginia Tech’s indoor facility before returning for Thanksgiving dinner with family.
“You have got to do what you have got to do,” Simon said. “We would love to be outside, but I would say it effects everybody, hopefully we will overcome it.”
The snow is expected to stop falling by Friday in Bridgeport, but the temperatures could be hovering in the 20s throughout the game.
“It shouldn’t bother us,” Simon said. “Both teams have got to play in it, that is just how it is.”
Bluefield has two losses this season, a 32-29 defeat at Princeton and a 29-27 setback at Wayne, but still found themselves ranked third in the state in the final ratings, but Bridgeport was second, forcing a road trip for the Beavers.
“We had our chance, dang, if you win them all you are home and we just didn’t do it,” Simon said. “Still, we are in the playoffs, we could not be in the playoffs so it is here nor there.
“We are in the playoffs. We finished third in the state. That will tell you something about how tough our schedule was to cause up to go with two losses and still finish third is pretty good.”
How accustomed is Bluefield to play late into the season? The current three-year span without a state championship game appearance is the longest for the Beavers since a 10-year span between the Class AAA state title in 1984, and a Class AA runner-up finish in 1994.
No wonder Simon can speak with authority when asked what the Beavers have to do to get past the Indians tonight.
“Read your keys and play football, and block on offense,” he said. “I think the offensive line is the key against Bridgeport.”
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Tonight’s game will be video-streamed by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission through paid subscription and be accessed at www.nfhsnetwork.com/wv. The cost is $9.95 for a single day pass.
—Contact Brian Woodson