The first time West Virginia State’s football team pulled out a close win, in the Yellow Jackets’ opener versus Frostburg State, WVSU coach John Pennington was impressed. He liked the team’s gumption. He liked its spirit.
Then nearly every win became a close one and Pennington came to realize that this was West Virginia State’s team this year, one that didn’t fold when games got tight.
Pennington hopes that spirit is as strong when the Yellow Jackets host the University of Charleston at 11 a.m. Saturday in a high-stakes Mountain East Conference game. If State (6-2, 6-1 MEC) can beat the Golden Eagles (5-3, 4-3 MEC), it still controls its own destiny in the conference championship race.
Pennington said he’s never been on a team that has been able to shrug off the pressures of close games and prevail like this one.
“I think it’s the mindset and the culture of our program to tune out the distractions and not focus on what’s happened in the past and focus on winning the moment,” he said. “That’s the motto of our entire season, to win the moment, and this team really embodies that.”
Of WVSU’s six wins this season, none of them have come by more than 10 points. Four of the six have been decided by four or fewer points. The last two were won on last-minute drives.
The Yellow Jackets scored their game-winning touchdown against Fairmont State on Oct. 12 with 15 seconds left. This past Saturday against West Virginia Wesleyan, the winning touchdown came with 10 seconds left.
Even State’s lone MEC loss to Urbana was a four-point margin.
Pennington said all that is a testament to the team’s mental toughness, a trait he tries to develop with the Yellow Jackets from before the players even arrive on campus. He looks for it on the recruiting trail — players with the right body language, players on bad teams who don’t point fingers at teammates or badmouth coaches. The team spends at least one day a week during the season and two days a week out of season honing that mental toughness.
They spend 20 minutes a session visualizing and focusing on breathing. They watch videos on leadership from experts like Kevin Elko, who works with Alabama’s football program.
“What you emphasize becomes who you are,” Pennington said, “and that’s definitely something we’ve emphasized.”
Pennington admits all those close games can be draining. After those close wins, with the roller coaster of emotions that comes with them, it takes him a few hours to decompress and get his appetite back. Yet he’ll deal with that if it means his players can grow as people and apply what they’ve learned in those situations to their everyday lives.
“Seeing our guys being able to overcome some of these things on game day, hopefully, they graduate and are able to overcome difficulties in life that are going to come no matter what,” Pennington said. “There’s definitely a lot of pride, because the ultimate reason we’re doing this is to create leaders after their football careers are over.”