MORGANTOWN — Dan Erenrich knew all along that Morgantown High School’s athletic teams were having a pretty good year. But until the very end, even he didn’t know just how good it had been.
“We won seven OVAC championships,’’ the school’s athletic director said. “That’s a pretty good year, but I didn’t even realize it until the year was over and I looked at it and counted them up.’’
Well, in truth it was an even better year than Erenrich’s count made it out to be. Yes, there were those seven Ohio Valley Athletic Conference championships, but even more significant there were two West Virginia state championships, two runner-up finishes and strong performances in nearly every sport across the board.
Count that up the end result was Morgantown’s first-ever Gazette Excellence In Sports Award (GEISA). The Mohigans won the Class AAA division of the annual all-sports rankings, narrowly edging Parkersburg by a half-point in one of the closest five-team races in the 18-year history of the award.
The all-sports championship for Morgantown certainly didn’t come out of the blue. Yes, it is the Mohigans’ first, broke a four-year run of titles by George Washington and denied Parkersburg an eighth title. Those two schools have dominated the division of late, having won 11 of 13 prior to this school year.
But Morgantown has been knocking on the door. In 2009, MHS had its worst finish ever in the all-sports rankings, finishing 20th and a whopping 48 points behind first-place Wheeling Park. But since then the Mohigans have finished 17th, seventh, second, second and now first. Last year’s second-place finish was by just 4 1/4 points.
Perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, Morgantown’s latest rise — the school also had top-five finishes six straight years between 2002 and 2007 — in a way mirrors its move to the OVAC, one of the elite high school conferences in the nation. The school joined the league out of necessity more than anything else, but in doing so seems to have raised its competitiveness to the level of the similar-sized schools against which it now regularly competes.
It wasn’t that Morgantown’s old conference was substandard. That wasn’t the case at all. The North Central Athletic Conference was formed 30 years ago and included Class AAA schools that fared well in many sports. Fairmont Senior won the Class AAA GEISA title in 2000, North Marion and Buckhannon-Upshur won state titles in various sports and other schools had good overall programs or excelled in particular sports. Ditto University High, which gave the Mohigans a league rival in the same city.
The NCAC, though, fell apart as Morgantown and University continued to grow and most of the other schools in the league got smaller. Schools began refusing the schedule the Mohigans and when the three Marion County schools — Fairmont Senior, East Fairmont and North Marion — all dropped to Class AA the NCAC disbanded all together.
The life raft for Morgantown and University was the OVAC, which is certainly not a bad option.
“You probably won’t find a better conference than the OVAC,’’ Erenrich said. “They offer so much in the way of recognition for athletes, scholarship programs and all sorts of things. For that, I’m so grateful to be a member.’’
But with membership comes a price. No longer can Morgantown take a 20-minute bus ride to an event in Marion County or an hour or less to many other long-time rivals. Instead, there is a constant stream of bus traffic back and forth from Morgantown to the Northern Panhandle or the Ohio River, many of those journeys taking three to four hours round trip.
“Do I miss the old relationships with the Marion County schools? Absolutely,’’ Erenrich said. “We had great relationships and the travel was so nice. If there is a drawback to being in the OVAC, it’s money and travel.’’
In a lot of ways it is like West Virginia University’s move to the Big 12. Travel and expenses — as well as easy availability to road games for fans — are a drain, but virtually everything else is an improvement and there was really no choice. Morgantown High’s old league, like WVU’s Big East, is only a memory and the rivalries with Wheeling Park or Parkersburg South aren’t exactly natural, but they are growing.
And, too, just like WVU in the Big 12, Morgantown has been forced to raise its level of play. In the NCAC it was always the biggest school. In the 5A division of the OVAC, Wheeling Park and Parkersburg South are virtually the same size and University High is close.
Again, whether Morgantown’s rise in recent years is a result of playing against similar-sized schools could be coincidental or perhaps not. There is no arguing the point, however, that in the three years since joining the OVAC, the Mohigans have produced steadily better results.
“I just think all of our programs have continued to get better,’’ Erenrich said. “We’re getting a lot of kids involved. We have to take two buses now to track meets. That’s good to see when the students get involved.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1