The past football season marked the 25th anniversary of the Mountain State Athletic Conference, which has gotten used to capturing gold as much as it does silver.
Formed in the fall of 1993 with 18 teams, the MSAC has survived a lot of arrivals and departures to remain as perhaps the best overall Class AAA sports league in West Virginia.
Football has been a big part of the MSAC’s history, as the league has produced 11 AAA champions and 16 runners-up since its inception. Five times, the MSAC has provided both teams competing in the AAA finals at the Super Six.
Makes you wonder what the league has in store for the next 25 years, starting with the coming season.
The MSAC is down to 11 members, the lowest total since it began, but there is stability in the ranks, as the coaches at seven of those schools begin at least their seventh season. Steve Edwards Jr. starts his 24th season at George Washington, followed by Spring Valley’s Brad Dingess (12), Huntington’s Billy Seals (11), Capital’s Jon Carpenter (10), Cabell Midland’s Luke Salmons (nine), Hurricane’s Jeremy Taylor (eight) and South Charleston’s Donnie Mays (seven).
Those figures don’t include Parkersburg’s third-year coach, Mike Byus, who led East Lincoln in Denver, North Carolina, for 12 seasons and captured a pair of 2A state titles before coming back to his home state. He won 133 games in 12 years at East Lincoln and posted eight 10-win seasons. In two years at Parkersburg, Byus has gone 7-4 and 7-5, earning the program’s first playoff win since 2007.
Edwards, the dean of MSAC coaches, marvels at the high level of coaching in the league.
“Our conference, with the talent coaching-wise — top to bottom — is as good as it’s ever been,’’ Edwards said. “I can speak on it since I’ve been around the longest. I’m certainly having to work harder. Usually in your latter years you try to slow down a little bit, but they won’t let me. They do a really good job.’’
Six of those seven MSAC coaches who have been around at least seven seasons with their current schools have taken their teams all the way to the Super Six in Wheeling since 2011. The only one who hasn’t, Hurricane’s Taylor, has been in the playoffs six times in seven seasons and has twice reached the quarterfinals.
Taylor acknowledges that as the MSAC has reduced its ranks, the prospect of winning a game — any game — has gotten much more difficult as the majority of programs that remain are extremely competitive.
“Before I was even head coach,’’ Taylor said, “back in the Gary Eggleton heyday, you went into the season knowing that there were five games where we should probably be favored, three games that we were not expected to win, and the others were tossups. So you always went in thinking five wins and try to get the tossup games and see what happens.
“Now you look at our schedule and there’s probably two games we’re favored to win. Then everything else is a tossup or we’re not favored. I could complain ‘woe is me,’ but that’s the way it is and no one feels sorry for you. Look at someone like Spring Valley — they’ve got what, 900-some students and they’ve played for a state championship three years in a row. There’s a lot more dynamics here. You’ve got to play with what you have. We’ve always been competitive and made the playoffs, but it’s not enough for me. I’ve gotten a lot wiser in my age.’’
Edwards also points to the talent of MSAC players as something special, which adds to the degree of difficulty in earning victories.
“The talent level in the conference week in and week out,’’ he said, “well, you’re going against somebody who’s going to be playing somewhere on Saturdays [in college] in a year or two. You’ve got to get ready to go. We preach to them in the offseason and the preseason and all season long, you’ve got to prepare. And the team that’s the most prepared and physical and can last through with staying healthy usually goes a little bit further than the others.
“We’ve played pretty much everybody that’s anybody ever since I’ve been here. It’s always a tough schedule and a tough grind. I know people are tired of hearing that, especially in the panhandle, but it is what it is. There’s a lot of good talent here.’’