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Mountain East Conference football defending champion Notre Dame was picked to repeat and the University of Charleston was slotted into the No. 2 spot in the MEC’s preseason coaches poll, released Tuesday in conjunction with the league’s virtual media day.

NDC finished atop the poll with 119 points (10 first-place votes), followed by UC with 112 points and two first-place votes.

West Virginia State University placed fifth with 79 points.

COVID-19 was one of the main topics during the media day. As delta variant cases are rising across the country, there is some level of concern regarding the MEC’s upcoming season.

MEC Commissioner Reid Amos addressed the situation in his opening remarks.

“Despite the many challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic created and continues to create, our institutions remain focused on making every effort necessary to provide our student-athletes with the opportunity to play if we can do so in an appropriately safe fashion,” Amos said.

“Similar to other conferences at all levels of NCAA competition, the Mountain East has been preparing for a 2021-22 season that we have been hopeful would be one that is much closer to a normal year of competition. We still hold out hope that we are in the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic is most certainly not yet over. The delta variant of COVID-19 presents a different set of challenges than previous iterations of the virus.

“We have proven the strength and resilience of the MEC and its membership over the last 18 months and the state of the Mountain East Conference is very strong and we look forward to the season to come.”

The MEC shut down its scheduled fall season in 2020 and was one of the few Division II conferences that offered its student-athletes ample opportunity to play during the spring. Amos said that a lesson he learned from that was good things come from being determined.

“I think we learned [that] if we are willing to turn over every stone and we’re willing to work hard on behalf of our student-athletes, there’s a lot that we can endure, and I’m very proud that we managed to provide an opportunity to play in all of our sports last year.”

According to Amos, the NCAA Sports Science Institute, which is in charge of releasing COVID safety guidelines, faced some criticism for not releasing its guidelines sooner — it only did so last week. This could be seen as a challenge, but Amos said the NCAA is doing its best with a tough situation, especially with the sudden rise of delta variant cases.

“Having attended every biweekly update from the NCAA Sports Science Institute, I can share with you my opinion,” Amos said. “They were faced with a very difficult set of circumstances. What we all have to face is the pandemic does the planning for us. We were simply being dealt a different hand of cards for the fall than we were expected to be.”

Update on WVSU

West Virginia State coach John Pennington addressed the media and expressed his excitement to be back for what is hopefully a normal fall season.

“[I’m] just excited to be practicing this fall,” he said. “[It’s] awesome to see our team, we got everybody back and getting back to somewhat of a normal season. It’s been a joy to be out there.”

State has had five practices so far and Pennington provided an evaluation of what he sees from his squad thus far.

“We have a really good chemistry,” Pennington said. “[There’s] some older guys that really understand what we’re trying to accomplish. Our recruits and our newcomers really were a great fit as far as coming into our program — kinda fitting the way we do things. It doesn’t feel like the normal camp grind maybe because we had the year off.”

One of Pennington’s most talented athletes is sophomore quarterback Donovan Riddick. In his four games last spring, Riddick was 58 of 100 in pass attempts for 605 yards in the air with four touchdowns. He is a threat on the ground, too, as he racked up 209 rushing yards with two touchdowns. Riddick is likely to be the starter again at quarterback this season.

“Don is a bright young man, he’s extremely disciplined,” Pennington said. “I think the game is slowing down a little bit. His first couple of starts the game was going fast for him [but] he was still playing really well. His ceiling is [high].”

State went 2-2 in the abbreviated spring 2021 season, and Pennington said his team’s goal coming off that season was simply to grow and get better.

“We had a good spring, we learned a lot, we had some growing pains — two good games and two bad games,” Pennington said. “We got some young guys experience and that was really good. We want to go from good to great.”

State starts its season on Sept. 4 with its only non-conference game, at home against Shippensburg University, before starting MEC play against Frostburg State on Sept. 11.

UC improvement?

Charleston coach Pat Kirkland, whose team won the MEC South Division title before falling to Notre Dame in the conference championship game, followed Pennington in addressing the media and shared a similar excitement as the season approaches.

“I’m excited about this group,” Kirkland said. “The way we finished up the spring, there was really a lot of high points that we took from our spring season, most importantly winning the Mountain East South Division and having a chance to play in a conference championship.”

Kirkland said he has a good group on both sides of the ball and wants to build off last season’s success and take it a step further. With the NCAA allowing another year of eligibility for athletes whose careers would have been cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kirkland has a lot of talent returning for him.

“[It’s] probably one of the more experienced groups we have coming back just because of playing that spring season, and due to COVID those players [were] able to get an additional year of eligibility.”

One of those returning players is quarterback Guy Myers, who was a senior last season and is taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility.

“A quarterback like Guy Myers presents so many issues for a defense.” Kirkland said. “He has such a strong arm in his ability to throw the football, but he’s really dynamic and if something breaks down he can create things with his feet. He has worked so hard in the offseason in just putting himself in a position where he’s a student of the game.”

UC starts its season on Sept. 9 at home against Fairmont State.

Kirkland talked about the excitement his players feel after more than a year of turmoil and lack of normalcy.

“We’ve got some guys that love to compete,” Kirkland said. “We’re in a position now where you walk through the locker room and they’re excited, they can’t wait to get out there. Usually you have practice and meetings and weights. I think they’re actually looking forward to the next one and the next one because they know it’s one step closer just to get to game day. It’s a tremendous feeling.”

Mental note

Notre Dame head coach Mickey Mental is coming off a 5-0 spring season in which he led the Falcons to their third straight MEC title (2018, 2019, 2021). Mental is hoping for another this year as his team has deservedly earned a No. 1 spot in the MEC preseason poll and is set up for success this season.

“Obviously we had a very good spring,” Mental said. “I was proud of the guys battling through a lot of adversity. Heading into this year is a new year and we’re trying to move forward and move past what we’ve done in the past.”

Rest of the rankings

Aside from Notre Dame, State and UC’s preseason poll positions, Frostburg State was picked to finish third and UNC Pembroke was picked to finish fourth. Rounding out the rest of the poll were Fairmont State (sixth), Wheeling (seventh), Glenville State (eighth), West Liberty (ninth), Concord (10th), Alderson Broaddus (11th) and West Virginia Wesleyan (12th).