There’s a squeeze play going on in the MSAC, and it doesn’t have a thing to do with baseball.
The combination of having Mountain State Athletic Conference football teams go from scheduling eight league games per season to six, combined with the number of Class AAA teams in the state dropping last year from 38 to 29 has sent a bunch of teams scurrying for opponents to fill out their 10-game regular-season schedules.
As the 11 MSAC teams gear up for the coming season, seven of them have scheduled games against teams outside West Virginia.
Some of those interstate matchups certainly aren’t surprising — Parkersburg has played neighboring Marietta, Ohio, 112 times in their long-lasting rivalry, and George Washington has been knocking heads with Paul Blazer of Ashland, Kentucky, every year since 2011.
However, crossing the border broke new ground for a lot of MSAC programs, which were used to filling their open spots against other programs in the southern part of the state.
Last year, both South Charleston and Capital traveled to Kentucky power Johnson Central. For SC, it marked the first game against an out-of-state opponent since 1932. For Capital, which opened in 1989, it was the first such game ever.
And now Hurricane joins the band of border runners, scheduling a Sept. 1 game at Paintsville, Kentucky.
Paintsville features 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman-fullback Tyrese Allen, who has committed to West Virginia University.
The common theme among those out-of-state opponents is success. Of the six Kentucky and Ohio schools on MSAC schedules, none had losing records and five were in their respective state playoffs last season.
The Kentucky lineup includes 4A champion Johnson Central (14-1), 3A champ Belfry (14-1), 1A semifinalist Paintsville (13-1) and 4A quarterfinalist Ashland (9-4). The Ohio contingent includes Division II playoff entry Cincinnati Anderson (7-4) and Marietta (5-5). The combined record of those six teams last year was 62-16.
Hurricane coach Jeremy Taylor is excited about the chance to play a program such as Paintsville, but doesn’t think it should have come to that.
“You’re in a conference with 11 teams and you can’t get 10 games?’’ Taylor said. “There’s a lot of stuff that can be done. No one should be ducking anybody. I know I’m not allowed to.
“Well, I’ll admit I did duck a team out of Columbus [Ohio] and a team in Erie, Pennsylvania, but I didn’t want to get the heck beat out of us by a team so much larger than our school.’’
As it is, the Redskins face a Paintsville team that’s gone 44-9 the past four years and has appeared in 13 playoff games during that stretch. The Tigers are currently riding a 21-game regular-season win streak, having gone 10-0 each of the past two regular seasons. They averaged 37.4 points per game last year.
Paintsville is about a 90-minute drive from Hurricane.
“It’s ridiculous we have to go to Paintsville, Kentucky, to get a game,’’ Taylor said, “but we were stuck at nine games forever.
“No matter what you do, it’s still a game. But it’s different football.’’
Logic would seem to dictate that when MSAC teams recently went from eight designated conference games to six that more league teams would hook up as non-conference foes to fill those open dates. But that didn’t happen. Some coaches claimed that other league schools were avoiding them.
“I think it’s a shame that we’re in a conference and every team can’t walk out of a conference meeting with a conference schedule,’’ said Huntington coach Billy Seals. “That’s what a conference is about — trying to help one another out. But a lot of teams do that [avoid others].
“One thing I’ve seen about all those teams [going outside of the state] is that they’re all usually pretty good. So there’s a reason for them having to play on the outside. It is what it is.’’
Of those seven MSAC teams playing outside West Virginia this season, six made the playoffs last year — all except for Parkersburg. And most of those are on playoff rolls — Cabell Midland and Huntington have gone to the postseason six straight times, Capital and GW nine of the last 10 years, Hurricane six of the previous seven and SC seven of the past nine.
So prospective opponents are wary of adding another “L” to their schedule.
“I don’t think any of us have a choice,’’ said Capital coach Jon Carpenter. “The conference is crazy, but you have to keep it in perspective. I can remember our first year , when we were everybody’s homecoming game. I think we played seven of them that year.
“For teams that have to go across the border, I don’t think anybody’s turning down a chance to play triple-A teams here. Of those 29 triple-A teams, several of them are playing double-A schools. I don’t think 29 goes into it. Martinsburg doesn’t play a bunch of out-of-state schools because they want to. A lot of people are scared of them.’’
Carpenter thinks playing challenging opponents gets teams with playoff aspirations more prepared, whereas creative scheduling for other teams doesn’t always pay dividends come postseason time.
“I would think that some schools’ goal is to be in the playoffs — I get it,’’ Carpenter said. “But I feel blessed to be in a situation we’re in that we have to do that [schedule strong out-of-state teams]. You can schedule yourself into the playoffs, but there’s no getting around someone like Martinsburg in November.’’
Some of the crunch will be alleviated when the MSAC goes back to eight league games in 2020, the season in which a new round of contracts begins. By that time, the MSAC will be a 10-team league, as Ripley departs after fall sports this year.
However, that still leaves two seasons following this one, meaning some of the MSAC’s top programs are going to have to continue to seek out games — either going a long way across West Virginia, or by leaving the state.
“I talked to Dave Walker and Martinsburg,’’ Seals said, “and we both decided it was too far to play a regular-season game. We had talked to University and Morgantown and Wheeling Park, but nothing worked out there. With only 29 teams in triple-A, and only 11 in the MSAC, it just makes finding games very difficult.’’
Walker, the 21st-year coach at Martinsburg, took note of the MSAC predicament. His Eastern Panhandle squad, the defending Class AAA champion, has played anywhere from two to four out-of-state games in recent seasons.
“All of those programs are really good programs,’’ Walker said of the MSAC border runners, “and when you are successful, it’s hard to find teams. So you have to play really good competition, and we like to think that makes you better.
“All those teams forced to play out-of-state opponents, that’s the price for success — tough scheduling. For us, we’re not in a big conference like most of the state is. We don’t have an automatic schedule. Sometimes you’re forced to play some teams that, some years, you may not want to play or not match up well against.’’