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Derek Taylor: Christian, Panthers look to be ‘good fit’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Results of the past five years suggest that it is unlikely for the Nov. 8 football game between St. Albans and Lincoln County to have much bearing on the 2013 Class AAA playoff race.

After all, the Panthers have yet to make the postseason in their seven years of existence. St. Albans' last playoff showing was in a 22-15 loss to Parkersburg in the 2007 state championship game. Since then, the Red Dragons went 4-6 in 2008, 3-7 in 2009 and have flatlined, with 2-8 records in each of the past three seasons.

Playoff implications aside, the 2013 season finale scheduled to kick off in Hamlin became a red-letter date last week when Derek Christian was named as the new coach at Lincoln County, replacing Cory Beck.

Beck resigned after the Panthers' 0-10 season last fall.

Christian stepped down in 2011 after coaching his alma mater at St. Albans for eight years, and is the only player in that school's history to play in a state title game for the Red Dragons (the school's 1979 loss to Bridgeport) and serve as its head coach in another (2007).

Christian left St. Albans to pursue an administrator's job at the end of the 2012 school year, and landed in Lincoln County as that school's assistant principal and athletic director. Unlike many counties, Lincoln County does not have a personnel rule against administrators serving as coaches.

In this case, that's probably a good thing. Lincoln County is 16-44 all-time, having opened prior to the 2006 season as the controversial consolidation of Hamlin, Duval and Guyan Valley. The Panthers have never finished better than 4-6.

"Derek's a real good fit for the kind of kids we have. They're kids that are hard-nosed, tough kids who are used to the three yards a cloud of dust offensive style like Derek runs," said Lincoln County Principal Dana Snyder, who is also a St. Albans graduate.

As soon as the news was known, some of the last words Christian spoke to me as an employee of St. Albans High School sprang into my head.

"You've got to have a program," he said.

He was specifically referring to the success of St. Albans' softball team, which he and I were both watching at that moment, as his step-daughter and All-Kanawha Valley outfielder Hannah King patrolled left field. Since the 2007-08 school year, that program is by far the most successful team sport at the school, and its 2010 state championship with a 34-1 record will keep it above .500 for a while still.

Christian's point, which had become a mantra in his final few years on the St. Albans sideline, was that the season does not start at the date determined by the Secondary School Activities Commission. Instead, preparation for the next season is a year-round pursuit.

With all respect due St. Albans Athletic Director and baseball Coach Rick Whitman, sports at his school have become more of a social pursuit in recent years, a trend that Christian himself bemoaned in his final few seasons.

"I grew up out on Coal Mountain. We had two channels on TV, and there wasn't anything else for me to do," Christian told me on the first day of 2010 preseason practices. "That's what we did for fun: We went out and played football. A lot of kids who would have been playing then don't play now, and a lot of them that do don't want to put the work in."

Monday, Christian said that his job is to facilitate the transition that turns a student into a student-athlete.

"All I can do is provide them with the opportunity," he said. "I told the kids that I'll be there with them through the season and the three-week period in the spring, and the rest is up to them. They have to be willing to put the work in."

Christian's coaching star was on the rise following SA's 12-2 run to the Super Six in 2007, and even remained so through the rebuilding year of 2008. But while his coaching friend - and fellow weightlifting fanatic - John Messinger stole the spotlight with South Charleston's back-to-back state title-winning years in '08 and '09, St. Albans slipped back into the slumber the program was in when Christian came home in 2004.

Steve Stoffel Jr. took over the SA program last year, and went 2-8 while installing his version of the zone-read spread.

They've got cable TV in Hamlin and in the harder-to-reach spaces of Lincoln County. However, it is not the somewhat pampered atmosphere that has surrounded athletics in some more suburban areas. In fact, there might not be a better place for Christian to make his return to the sidelines.

There's more to the picture as it applies to Lincoln County as a whole. Voters there will decide the fate of a bond Feb. 23 that, if passed, will provide $5 million for the construction of new athletic facilities, including a new football stadium. The Panthers have, to this point, played at Hamlin High's old field.

"It's crucial, and a big step in competing as a triple-A school," Christian said.

That Lincoln County was allowed to leave the Mountain State Athletic Conference prior to the 2012 season without suffering the scheduling moratorium for defectors that is on the league's books allows the Panthers to play smaller schools - SA, Nitro, Winfield, Ripley, etc. - and thus increase the chances Christian can build momentum quickly with his I-formation offense.

That run-heavy method has been a staple of the Panthers' for years, so there won't be the need for an extended transition period for their players to lean a new scheme.

Known for his hard-working off-season regimen, if Christian is able to meld it with an ability to get Lincoln County students out of the halls and onto the playing field, the Panthers could be on the rise in short order.

Contact Preps Editor Derek Taylor at derek.taylor@dailymail.com or 304-348-5170. Follow him on Twitter @ItsreallyDT.

 


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