One Mountain East Conference football team from the Kanawha Valley is heading to new ground Thursday night. The other faces a very familiar opponent.
While the University of Charleston hosts No. 25 Fairmont State at 7 p.m. at UC Stadium to open its season, West Virginia State begins its season on the road with a trip to Frostburg State in Maryland, a program both new to the Mountain East and Division II athletics. That game also kicks off at 7 p.m.
The Yellow Jackets are in a spot they have never before enjoyed entering an MEC season. They were picked to finish third in the conference, the highest preseason prediction for WVSU since entering the Mountain East. That’s not surprising, since the team returns strong-armed quarterback Austin Hensley and eight starters on defense, including linebacker Dustin Crouser.
Yet State coach John Pennington isn’t breezing into this season opener, even though Frostburg was picked to finish ninth in the 11-team MEC. When he sees the Bobcats, he sees a team that has won 19 games in its last two seasons in Division III, and a team that is pretty amped up to open its Division II era at home.
“This is a team that’s got something to prove because they want to show everyone they can compete at the D-2 level,” Pennington said. “They know how to win. They’ve got a strong culture. They know how to pull out close wins and get to the playoffs.”
The Bobcats have five players returning who were All-New Jersey Athletic Conference picks last season. Senior receiver Malik Morris and junior defensive end Zach Strand were first-teamers, defensive back Vincent Persichetti and returner Terrell Brown were second-teamers and defensive tackle Walter Riley earned honorable mention.
Frostburg lost a four-year starter at quarterback in Connor Cox, but Will Brunson, a transfer from the University of Albany, will start at that spot Thursday.
With so many new wrinkles to deal with in playing at Frostburg State, Pennington said the Yellow Jackets spent much of the preseason focusing on themselves to prepare for whatever surprises await.
“What we tried to focus on is our own standard,” Pennington said. “We want to be an elite football program, so we’re trying to hold ourselves to the standard of what a championship team does. We have a certain standard no matter who we play.”
The Golden Eagles, picked to finish fourth in the MEC, will have their hands full with the nationally ranked Falcons, picked to finish second to Notre Dame College in the conference. UC coach Pat Kirkland and the team know exactly what they’ll be getting into at UC Stadium. Fairmont State returns 10 of 11 starters on offense from last season, including quarterback Takwan Crews-Naylor, as well as seven of 11 starters on defense, including All-MEC defensive back Michael Porter.
“They pretty much have all their offensive weapons back,” Kirkland said. “Their quarterback makes great decisions, especially pre-snap. And their running game with those linemen coming back … they make you defend the whole formation.”
Charleston is in the opposite camp of the Falcons, as the Golden Eagles are trying to replace a number of starters at key positions. While 1,000-yard receiver Mike Strachan is back, he’ll have someone different as his main quarterback following the graduation of Mason Olszewski. Brant Grisel is penciled as the starter, but Kirkland has said junior college transfer Guy Myers should see time on the field.
On defense, UC lost a pair of NFL pass rushers. John Cominsky was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Falcons and is on the team’s active roster, while Kahzin Daniels signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a rookie free agent and is on that team’s injured reserve.
Because of that, Charleston spent a lot of preseason camp getting new starters up to speed on their duties.
“Your goal is to be as unpredictable as possible, but not have so much in the playbook that those kids can’t execute at a high level,” Kirkland said. “We kind of cut back with some new faces, especially on defense, and made sure we got good at the basics and had a little bit in the playbook we could handle from day to day.”