F. Brian Ferguson
Fayetteville and Wahama, separated by 118 miles and a trip of 2 hours, 23 minutes, open the season for a second straight time next month.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If you're a Class A football team in the southern part of West Virginia and you want to fill your schedule with state teams, you basically have two choices.
1. Play well above your class. 2. Fill the bus with lots of gas.
With consolidations swallowing up more and more smaller schools in the southern half of the state, the ones that remain are getting farther and farther apart.
That has prompted most of those schools to hit the road more than Willie Nelson ever dreamed of. Take a look at the schedule of just about any Class A school in the southern half of West Virginia, and you'll probably see a couple of long trips.
Meadow Bridge (Fayette County) has a trip of 156 miles and 2 hours, 46 minutes to Tug Valley on Sept. 6, then a trek of 141 miles and 2:49 to Pendleton County three weeks later.
Buffalo (Putnam County) has long been a frequent flier on state highways, and this season has six road trips to endure, none shorter than 65 miles and 95 minutes one way. That includes back-to-back roadies to Gilmer County (130 miles, 2:13) and Tyler Consolidated (105 miles, 2:08).
Montcalm (Mercer County) also sports back-to-backers late in the season to Tygarts Valley (186 miles, 3:42) and Hannan (178 miles, 3:13).
But the king of the road this year has to be Van (Boone County), which in less than a month visits Richwood (118 miles, 2:46), Clay-Battelle (216 miles, 3:43) and South Gallia, Ohio (100 miles, 2:00). That doesn't include a date with Paden City (160 miles, 3:00), which fortunately for the Bulldogs is a home game this season after they made the long hike to Wetzel County last year.
"That's just the way it is,'' said Man coach Harvey Arms. "You have to find somebody to play, and if you want to play in our class, it's something you just about have to do.
"Down this way, when all the Mingo County teams consolidated [into Mingo Central], that cut out Burch, Williamson and Gilbert - all those single-As. When Lincoln County consolidated, we lost Duval, Hamlin and Guyan Valley. Really, I guess, in the southern end of the state, there's us, Sherman, Van, Montcalm and the Fayette County schools. We're the only single-A schools left.''
Man is involved in one of those whoppers of a road trip, but this time is on the receiving end as Pocahontas County winds its way 170 miles and nearly 4 hours to the Logan County town on Oct. 25. The Hillbillies have already made the trip to Dunmore twice since 2010.
"By the time you stop and rest and take time to eat,'' Arms said, "it's probably a five-hour trip.''
The traveling pigskin show exists more in the southern half of West Virginia simply because of consolidations and geography. In the northern half of the state, 24 Class A schools are bunched into little pockets (see graphic), mainly in the greater Parkersburg, Clarksburg and Wheeling areas.
Pendleton County and Pocahontas County remain remote outposts for any other state team to visit, as they're tucked away at or near the bottom of the Eastern Panhandle. That leaves just 13 other single-A teams in the southern portion of West Virginia out of the 39 schools in the division that play football.
That number could dwindle ever more in some spots, like Fayette County, which still has four Class A schools even after Mount Hope was absorbed into Oak Hill two years ago.
"There's so much consolidation going on,'' said Fayetteville coach Frank Spangler, "it's hard to get a good schedule now. We can get a schedule with double-A schools in there, but it wouldn't be fair for our kids to play out of class so much.''
That's left Spangler with some extended bus rides in years past, including games at Man and Moorefield, a 200-mile jaunt which the Yellowjackets are scheduled to make to Fayetteville this season.
This year, the Pirates' longest voyage is their season opener on Aug. 30, when they return the favor and visit Wahama (118 miles, 2:23), the defending state champion, which traveled to Fayetteville last year.
"The kids like to play a competitive schedule,'' Spangler said, "so we try to get them the best schedule we can.''
Certainly, there are inherent drawbacks to intersectional contests.
For one, long bus rides can wear out players and coaches before the game has even kicked off. It also keeps everyone out fairly late for the return trip home - unless you decide to stay overnight, then the excursion become even more expensive than just dishing out money for gas and a meal. And finally, who knows what harm comes from traversing country roads into the wee hours of the morning?
"Most single-As have to travel a good bit,'' said Buffalo coach Mike Sawyer. "Every one of our [road] games is almost two hours or more, so we've been able to take charters. I've been riding buses for 30 years to games. They don't wear me down. There's nothing you can do about it. It is what it is.
"Some people give Wahama grief about going into Ohio [to compete in the Tri-Valley Conference], but they don't have to travel very far. Their schedule is much easier, and it's a good situation for them.''
As for another sticking point, Sawyer noted that just because you've located a team your size across the state willing to play doesn't mean the game will actually materialize on the schedule.
"For single-As, especially this year, it's been hard,'' he said. "In football, you've got to make sure you can match up your dates. Maybe somebody has two open dates and you have two, but if they're not the same dates, you can't play. In basketball, you can just move the game from Tuesday to Wednesday. Not in football.''
In 2011, Buffalo logged a total of 532 miles to its five road games, with an average travel time of 2 hours, 3 minutes per game. Last season's trips included the short every-other-year visit to county rival Poca.
Some other rides the Bison endured since 2008 were to Valley Wetzel (131 miles, 2:46), Notre Dame (158 miles, 2:31), Richwood (139 miles, 2:27) and Gilbert (110 miles, 2:07).
Even with all the potential drawbacks, some teams look forward to making a long trip for a game, and even consider it a special weekend instead of a chore.
Arms, for one, said he wouldn't mind extending the contract with far-flung Pocahontas if the Warriors are up to it.
"To make a trip that size every other year,'' Arms said, "is fun for the kids. It doesn't bother us that bad. Now, to do it every season, or twice a season?
"In our situation, we've got a good boosters club who gets us a charter bus every other year, so the travel part of it doesn't bother us that much. There's kind of an excitement to it, taking our team to a different part of the state. We don't mind it that bad. But if a team has to travel like that three, four, five games, it makes it very tough.''
Man, which dropped from AAA all the way to Class A in a span of less than 10 years (1997-2004), likes to maintain its neighboring rivalries with bigger schools, which helps cut down total travel. This season, the Hillbillies play five such games - AAA Logan and four AAs.
Spangler also lauds his boosters club for allowing the Pirates to avoid exorbitant travel expenses.
"They help us financially on travel,'' he said, "and the county helps us on expenses. They allow so much of an allowance for travel through the county. That's a big help as well, so it doesn't become a burden on any of our long trips.
"Yeah, the kids get back home late, but other than that, it's not a problem.''
Some schools, especially the state's smallest football-playing ones like Hundred, Montcalm, Hannan and Van, don't mind covering long distances for games against teams more their own size.
In fact, Hannan and Hundred are meeting twice this season - Sept. 6 at Hundred and Nov. 9 in Mason - despite being separated by 156 miles and 3:15 in driving time.
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.