Football Preview | Keyser seeks more consistency in 2023

Aug. 24—KEYSER, W.Va. — After an up and down 2022 season, the Golden Tornado hope for more consistency in 2023.

Keyser graduated 18 seniors and had a roster of over 60 players last year. This year it's down to 41.

"It's probably the year we've had the least amount of experience coming back," Keyser head coach Derek Stephen said. "We're replacing a bunch of linemen, a bunch of people on defense. We're a little wet behind the ears, but these kids are working hard. They're up for the challenge right now."

Last season, Keyser finished 5-5 overall after starting 4-1, winning all four games by at least two scores. However, the team struggled in the second half, finishing 1-4.

"Our big thing last year was we needed to finish," Stephen said. "We couldn't finish, against John Marshall we couldn't finish drives. Against Allegany, we couldn't finish the game. We didn't do a good job of finishing last year."

The Tornado opened the year with a 35-21 win over Robert C. Byrd and a 56-14 victory against North Star out of Pennsylvania. After falling 31-10 to Beaver, Ohio, they beat Hampshire 48-22 and Northern 28-10.

Keyser dropped its next two games, losing 30-14 at John Marshall and 19-16 versus Allegany. Its final win of the season came against Moorefield in a 55-19 victory. The Tornado fell 49-13 to Mountain Ridge and 32-14 in the Mineral Bowl to Frankfort to end the season at .500.

"You get a chance to knock your cross-county rival out of the playoffs, you relish that for life," Stephen said of last year's Mineral Bowl. "They've done it two years in a row so it is what it is. We'll take our lumps when we get them. If we're able to give them out sometime soon, so be it. If not, we'll do what we need to do and be where we need to be."

Keyser loses several key players on both sides of the ball. Tight end Braydon Keller was a unanimous first team All-Area selection last season. He led all tight ends with 10 receptions for 247 yards and four touchdowns. He will play at Glenville State this fall.

The Tornado also lost a pair of linemen who will play for Frostburg State. Gabe Ryan was a first-team All-Area at offensive line and a first-team West Virginia Class AA defensive lineman.

"You had guys like Gabe that led the right way," Stephen said. "They saw how to do things, so these guys can model themselves after that. Not everyone is built like Gabe, but he showed how to practice and do all that stuff."

On defense, he recorded 63 tackles with six for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and two forced fumbles. He also graded out at 93% of offensive assignments.

William "Bub" Barbe was a first-team All-Potomac Valley Conference selection at offensive line and will join Ryan on the Bobcats.

Second-team All-Area linebacker Anthony Mele was committed to play sprint football at Alderson Broaddus, but the school closed two weeks before the fall semester. He had 87 total tackles including nine for loss with two interceptions last season.

While Keyser lost a big senior class, 11 seniors and eight juniors are returning.

The Tornado's starting quarterback from last year, senior Logan Rotruck (5-foot-11, 180 pounds), returns as the starter. He's joined by senior Lucas Davy (5-11, 145) and sophomore Owen Rotruck (5-4, 115).

"He's been doing a great job," Stephen said of Logan Rotruck. "He's gained more knowledge, he's like a 4.2 GPA student so he's as smart as can be. He's soaking in everything we're telling him, he's making the right calls and right reads."

In the backfield, Josh Shoemaker (5-11, 190, Sr.) will play halfback. Tristen Root (5-10, 180, Jr.) will be the fullback who rushed 129 times for 734 yards and eight touchdowns last year. He was an honorable mention All-Area selection last season.

Jack Stanislawczyk (5-11, 155, Sr.) and Keith Lawrence II (5-10, 155, Sr.) will be the wing backs. They were part of the 4x400 relay team that won the West Virginia Class AA state title earlier this year. Stanislawczyk was also an honorable mention All-Area pick.

The other backs include Kaii Kingman (5-9, 150, Sr.) and Corbyn Duckworth (5-11, 155, So.).

"We got some experience in the backfield," Stephen said. "We got some pieces, we just gotta find where they fit."

Chase Davis (5-7, 130, Sr.) will start at split end. Lucas Williamson (5-8, 130, So.) and Camden Owens (5-6, 110, So.) are also listed.

"He catches the ball really well," Stephen said of Davis. "He runs pretty good routes. He split time out there last year so he's taking over the full reins this year."

After playing running back last year, Grayson Lambka (5-10, 155, So.) will play tight end.

The offensive line expects to feature four new starters with center Jake Anderson (5-10, 225, Jr.) set to be the lone returning starter. Cole Cook (5-10, 165, So.) is the projected left tackle next to Jullian Pattison (6-1, 220, Jr.).

He was a tight end last year but switched to guard. Daniel "Bucky" Shoemaker (5-8, 160, Jr.) is expected to play right guard beside Wyatt Murray (6-0, 170, Sr.) at right tackle.

"We still got some guys fighting for other positions," Stephen said. "They're all penciled in right now. We got some guys competing for those spots. But that's who we're going with right now."

Waylon Paugh (5-9, 170, Sr.) is competing with Murray to play right tackle. Austin Smith (6-2, 290, Sr.) is currently injured, but is expected to compete for a starting spot. Johnny Fazzalore (6-2, 245, Sr.) is also in contention.

Brady Lyons (5-8, 155, So.), Elijah Burdock (5-1, 140, So.), Jordan Paugh (5-5, 185, So.), Tyner Dent (6-5, 135, So.), Ashton Youngblood (5-5, 180, Jr.) and Ian Braithwaite (5-11, 165, So.) round out the unit.

Stephen said that Keyser will use a rotation of players at defensive line. Anderson, Fazzalore and Smith were players he mentioned that he expects to contribute. Shoemaker and Murray are also expected to play.

Pattison will start at inside linebacker. Logan Rotruck, for now, is at outside linebacker, however, Stephen hopes to not to have to use his quarterback on defense. Kingman, Lambka and Lawrence II will rotate in at outside linebacker.

"He's a hard nosed kid, he's been playing football his whole life," Stephen said of Rotruck. "We have confidence in him if he has to be out there."

Duckworth, Owen Rotruck, Shoemaker and Murray are the other linebackers.

Stanislawczyk and Davis will start at cornerback with Shoemaker and Root at safety. Williamson, Pattison, Owens and Davy make up the rest of the secondary.

The Tornado scrimmaged University and East Hardy and Stephen said he was "pleasantly surprised" with how the defense played.

"I'm not saying I didn't anticipate that, but we were more focused on the offense the first couple weeks," he said. "I told them I just wanna see you compete, have fun and fly around. That's what they did. We still got a ways to go, but I think they have a chance to be pretty good."

Tommy Nash (5-8, 150, So.) will be the kicker and Pattison will punt. Stanislawczyk is expected to be one of the returners along with Kingman, Lawrence II and Davis.

The Golden Tornado open the season at home tomorrow night against Robert C. Byrd at 7 p.m.

"RCB's a great team to play right off the bat," Stephen said. "They're always pretty darn good. They've got a new coach this year, so we don't know how similar they'll be. We're just looking for the opportunity. That Friday can't get here soon enough."

Keyser also hosts John Marshall, Moorefield and Frankfort. It will travel to Hedgesville, Berkeley Springs, Hampshire, Weir, Allegany and Mountain Ridge.

The meeting with Hedgesville on Sept. 1 will be the first between the Golden Tornado and the Eagles since 1992.

"It always brings a little excitement to the team," Stephen said of playing someone new. "You play the same kids, the Fort Hill, Allegany, Mountain Ridge, Frankfort and Hampshire kids. You start playing them in youth league and play them all the way through. You add someone new, it adds a little excitement to the game."

Keyser missed the playoffs the last two seasons. It would have advanced to the postseason in 2020, but COVID-19 cases in Mineral County prevented that opportunity. No one on the roster has playoff experience, however, the Golden Tornado hope to change that.

"Getting a chance to represent your city in the playoff means a lot," Stephen said. "It means you're one of the 16 best in the state and that really means something. Having the chance to do that and to be able to represent your team and play for a potential title is always a great thing."

Jordan Kendall is a Sports Writer for the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @JKendallCTN.