Cabell Midland hoping for deep playoff run under Jackson County connection

Mark Martin
Special to Jackson Newspapers

A year ago, Cabell Midland’s football program qualified for the Class AAA playoffs of West Virginia.

But that is as far as they ever got.

Due to COVID-19, Midland never saw action in the postseason and thus, their quest for a title came to a crashing halt.

Many, including the school’s head coach, felt the Knights had the potential to be a state champion contender.

That coach is Jackson County native Luke Salmons.

The former Ravenswood High three-sport standout knew it was out of his hands last season. And while frustrating, all Salmons and company could do was flip the page and get ready for the 2021 season.

Other than a tough 21-17 loss to rival Huntington, Cabell Midland captured nine victories this season and now sets its sights on being at Wheeling Island Stadium the first weekend of December to battle for the Class AAA crown.

“We’re excited as always,” said Salmons of his program qualifying for the Sweet 16 of Class AAA. “The last time we played in the playoffs we lost the state championship (to Martinsburg in the 2019 title game). Our kids are hungry. A lot of those kids are back and they’re excited about the opportunity.”

Salmons, who played on the offensive line at Marshall following his decorated high school career, is in his 10th season as Midland’s head coach.

Besides the 2019 team, Salmons also guided Cabell Midland to the state championship game in 2013, where the Knights also fell to Martinsburg’s powerful program.

All of Midland's teams under Salmons have reached the playoffs since he left Lawrence County. Midland was formed in 1994 when old Barboursville High School and Milton High School consolidated.

Salmons is just the school's third head football coach. He has a playoff record of 12-9 at the school.

Salmons enjoyed great success at Lawrence County and was noted for taking the Bulldogs from a winless (0-11) campaign to a deep playoff run (12-1) in one year. It was the single biggest turnaround in Kentucky high school football history.

His third and final Bulldog team also reached the playoffs before he headed to Midland.

This Knight team is one many think has the makings of producing history.

“We got beat one game this year,” said Salmons.

Huntington, by the way, finished undefeated and is the No. 1 seed.

The Knights are the No. 5 seed and will face off with No. 12 South Charleston Friday night, Nov. 12, in an opening round game on their home turf at Knights Stadium in Ona. South Charleston was declared the state champs last year in the COVID-19 marred season.

Salmons feels the defeat at the hands of the Highlanders earlier in the year has paved the way for a lot of success.

“It made us a lot better football team. Our kids are way better than they were,” he said. “We’re playing really good football right now. We’re healthy. I’m proud of our coaches.”

One of his assistants is Ripley native and former Ripley High head football coach Eddie Smolder.

Cabell Midland head football coach Luke Salmons (left) and assistant Eddie Smolder (right) will lead the Knights into a Class AAA playoff opening round game with South Charleston Friday, Nov. 12. Salmons, a Ravenswood High graduate and former Red Devil star, is in his 10th season at the helm. Smolder, a former Ripley standout and Viking head coach, is in his second season on the Midland staff. The two, pictured at the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission office for a Sunday playoff meeting, were football teammates at Marshall.

Smolder is in his second season guiding the defense for the Knights.

As a player at Ripley, Smolder was a key part of a Ripley team that produced one of the biggest wins in school history. The Vikings, the No. 16-seed in the 1997 campaign, knocked off No. 1 Morgantown at Pony Lewis Field.

It remains the only time a No. 16 has beaten a No. 1 seed in the AAA playoffs.

Smolder, who was a First Team All-State selection as a senior in 1997, went on to enjoy a great college career at Marshall. He served four years as Sissonville’s head coach and led the Indians to the playoffs twice.

As Ripley’s head coach, his 2019 squad reached the postseason and finished 1-1 in playoff action. As one of Class AAA’s smaller schools, Smolder had two other teams on the cusp of reaching the postseason. He’s enjoying his time at Midland and working with his fellow Jackson County native, former MU teammate and great friend.

“Luke is a really good football coach and runs a great football program,” Smolder said. “Coaching at Midland with one of my best friends and former teammates is really fun.

“We have a really good coaching staff that loves kids and football. The coaches work very hard to give the players the best chance to win. The kids are tough, coachable and are goal-driven to succeed.”

Salmons was a two-time Class AA First Team All-Stater at Ravenswood and was honored as a senior in 1998 with the Hunt Award (now the Stydahar), given to the state’s top lineman. Salmons was also a state champion wrestler and a First Team All-State baseball player, pitching Ravenswood to a state title in 1999. He is a member of the prestigious Mid-Ohio Valley Football Hall of Fame.

He feels this team is focused on the biggest prize of them all.

“The kids aren’t happy about being in the playoffs. They want more than that. You can sense it from them,” said Salmons, who is married to the former Amanda Anderson of Ripley. They are the proud parents of four boys. “They’ve been around. They understand you’ve got to win or go home. Our kids are real excited about playing the game. They love the game of football.”

While Wheeling is the goal of any team at this stage of the season, Salmons knows one can’t look too far ahead.

“It’s one week at a time,” he said. "We kind of have that focus in the regular season. We focus on every team. Round one is going to be a good game, hopefully we advance. You’ve just got to focus each week. You kind of plan to get better. I think our kids have done a great job of that.”

Midland has piled up over 4,000 yards of offense and scored nearly 40 points a game. The defense is allowing just 11.

Now comes the new season starting with Mountain State Athletic Conference rival South Charleston, who finished 5-5.

“We’re excited. I feel good about where we’re at and so we’re on borrowed time right now. We’ve got to get better and play. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them a lot of years. We haven’t played them this year. That’s always good when you haven’t played somebody that’s in our conference. Our kids are excited about playing them.”

And perhaps taking the first step on The Road to Wheeling.