Living up to lofty standard
WINFIELD - It's kind of hard to miss, actually. It's right there in the town's name.
When you reach the outskirts on W.Va. 817, the sign welcomes you to Winfield, "The Town of Champions.''
Winning has been contagious at Winfield. It's also become expected.
Since 2004, the town's high school has captured 15 state championships in seven different sports. About the only program to get bypassed during the gold rush has been football.
The Generals haven't made the football playoffs since 2005 when they were competing in Class AA. The last time they posted a winning season was 2004.
Willie Wilson, who spent five years as Winfield's football coach, could only manage one 5-5 record, that coming in 2007, his first season. The school was bumped to Class AAA status a year later.
So it's certainly a daunting task facing Craig Snyder, who takes over as head coach after spending 12 years as an assistant on the Generals' staff. How does he make Winfield football relevant again?
"That's a fair question,'' Snyder said, "because we haven't been relevant since we were double-A. In my 12 years, in our double-A years, it seemed like we were always in the mix. We had a couple down years, but we were usually in the mix. Since we went triple-A, we haven't been in the mix at all.
"When I got the job in February, one question I got was how am I going to change the perception that we're not a physically tough team, and we don't have tough kids? That is the perception, and we really had to change our mindset in the weight room. Not only expect the guys just to show up, but to work hard when they're there. We have to work harder as coaches, too. Ask more out of them, and be more demanding.''
Snyder hasn't been afraid to attack some of the program's perceived shortcomings in recent years.
"To be relevant, you have to have good football players, you have to have good coaches and you have to make plays,'' he said. "And I think there are issues we've had in the more recent past, with a lack of discipline on the team, overall team chemistry, the overall commitment to work hard and do everything right every day. We had to change and get back to where things were when Bruce [McGrew] was coach.
"In the past few years, we've had several games where we've had close losses and you look at our season and you say, 'Well, if we could flip that score and that score and that score, and instead of 3-7, we go 6-4.' But you know, that's woulda, coulda and shoulda. All those are excuses. I believe that teams that are disciplined and prepared, those close games become close wins maybe. Football's a funny sport. The ball bounces funny. But ultimately luck favors teams that are better prepared and work harder.
"At this point,'' Snyder said, "I think, 'What can I do to change?' and the only thing I could affect is how hard we're working, and I think it's making a difference, I really do. There's no doubt there's been [a culture of losing] here. But I think the summer practices and the two-a-days are unlike anything they've been through here. I think it's probably similar to some of the things Bruce did when he was here in terms of requirement of intensity in practice and not just going through the motions.''
To that quest, Snyder has received nothing but support from some of the team's leaders and returning starters.
"It's just a process, and it's going to take time,'' said senior running back Seth Lewis of changing the team's mentality. "Coach Snyder can do it. If anybody can do it, he can do it. It's going to take time and hard work, and having more mental toughness as a team. Playing more as a team, together.''
Lewis is the squad's top returning rusher, having gained 628 yards and scored four touchdowns last season. The leading runner, senior David Gaydosz, transferred to Cabell Midland after becoming the first Winfield player since at least the 1980s to go over 1,000 yards (the school doesn't have complete statistics).
Senior safety T.C. Kester, more than most Generals, realizes how far the team must go to relive its glory days, because he's a direct link to that time. He's the son of Ted Kester, the 1985 Kennedy Award winner who played on Winfield's AA state championship team that year. The Generals also won the crown in 1987.
"Our motivation is being the best team we can be,'' Kester said, "and working hard day in and day out to reach our goals. We can't be lazy. We have to block hard, we have to tackle hard. We have to storm the football.''
Besides the transfer of Gaydosz, the Generals have also been hit with other setbacks.
Senior lineman Wes Barrett was injured in a motorcross accident and lost for the season, and another lineman, Garrett Grafton, suffered a shoulder injury and has been limited in practice. On Wednesday, junior Colt Richardson, a returning running back, was ruled out for the year with a knee injury sustained earlier this week.
"We're dealing with a lot of things,'' Snyder said. "I think we've had more obstacles than other teams have had at this point. It was difficult for the guys when David left, just the timing of it all. The challenges are typical football challenges.
"I've been talking to the guys about dealing with things that don't go our way. I'm learning to do that and to work on their mental psyche, so to speak. They're going to be pretty fragile [about losing Richardson]. We want to be there for Colt, but at the same time we've got to learn that no matter what adversity comes our way, we've got to keep working hard. There are a lot of life lessons to be learned.''
On top of all that, the Generals are embarking on their first season in the Mountain State Athletic Conference, which is regarded as perhaps the toughest league in the state. Last year, seven MSAC teams qualified for the AAA playoffs.
To a man, the Generals are committed to turning their program around and perhaps starting their own glory days. They want to live up to their end of the bargain in the "Town of Champions.''
"Every day in practice, constantly, just the thought of the failure of the past,'' said senior safety Alan Short of his motivation. "This being my senior year, I want to step up. I want to put Winfield back on the map. That's what I'm here for. I'm here for Winfield High. I'm not here for Alan. I'm for this team.
"I play with these guys my whole life, and now it's our time. We want Winfield to be restored to the time of T.C.'s dad . . . We want to bring it back. We want to bring back that Winfield spirit. 'Town of Champions,' that says it all right there.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A year-by-year recap of records since Winfield last made the football playoffs as a Class AA school in 2005. The Generals moved up to AAA in 2008.