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Rich Stevens: It’s time to move on with new conference

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I had to laugh, at least to myself, when I heard the answer given me by Fairmont State's Isaac Thornton.

I asked him what he thought of West Liberty when he first saw them practice. After all, the No. 1 team in the National Association of Basketball Coaches' NCAA Division II rankings comes across as a little less than intimidating.

His answer?

"I just thought they were a bunch of white guys with low socks," said Thornton, who is four years removed from winning a Class AAA state title with Martinsburg on the Charleston Civic Center floor.

That was one of the few lesser-known highlights of the final West Virginia Conference Tournament.

The WVC will kind of morph into the Mountain East Conference next year, although MEC Commissioner Reid Amos said it truly is a new conference.

Still, there will be many similarities between the conferences, considering nine of the WVC schools will be in the MEC and only three will be relative - or almost complete - unknowns to the world of Mountain State Division II basketball.

I'm not shedding a tear for a conference that I have followed since the late 1980s.

There have been considerable changes made to the league - the departure of West Virginia Tech and the additions of two out-of-state teams in Seton Hill and Pitt-Johnstown - to become part of a league that had been made up exclusively of West Virginia institutions.

Evolution is necessary for success, and while I've not made my feelings a secret, I get the feeling that many others will be able to move on rather sooner than later.

The league will cling to its rivalries - Wheeling Jesuit versus West Liberty and West Virginia State versus Charleston remain two of the most heated.

While losing Bluefield State, Ohio Valley, Davis & Elkins and Alderson-Broaddus, the new league will maintain West Liberty, Shepherd, Fairmont State, Wheeling Jesuit, Glenville State, Charleston, Concord, West Virginia State and West Virginia Wesleyan.

When it comes to basketball, the most-attended WVC tournament annually, the top five teams remain.

Alderson-Broaddus will be missed badly. Coach Greg Zimmerman, who has made the Battlers one of the league's most feared teams, will shuffle off to the Great Midwest Conference.

Others, who have built firm relationships among WVC coaches and administrators, also will be.

Like Bob Rukavina, the veteran men's basketball coach at Pitt-Johnstown, and Ferne Labati, the longtime Division I coach at Miami (Fla.), who will take her Seton Hill team to the PSAC, made instant friends in the WVC.

Rukavina is an old-school guy with a firm handshake and a smile. Not long after Pitt-Johnstown was eliminated by West Liberty in the tournament quarterfinals, Hilltoppers Coach Jim Crutchfield wished him luck in the PSAC and they talked for about 20 minutes.

Labati lets her assistants do a lot of the heavy lifting, but she hasn't missed a step in her evaluation of talent or coaching ability.

In other words, this isn't as much about talent, the ability of teams to win championships, or being competitive on a national level. At least not for me.

It's more about the relationships built among coaches and there will be new ones developing with the new guard - Notre Dame College, Urbana and Virginia-Wise.

I look forward to moving forward, getting to know new people and embracing what amounts to a new adventure.

*  *  *

FAIRMONT STATE Coach Jerrod Calhoun made an instant winner out of a team that hadn't played in a West Virginia Conference championship game since 1985.

The former WVU assistant and Bob Huggins protege added three players to take Fairmont State - 7-15 last season - to a 22-8 record and a chance to unseat West Liberty from the top of the conference heap.

He'll immediately go back to work in search of replacements for two of his stars.

Former St. John's player Malik Stith has played his final minutes for the Falcons, as did Isaiah Hill, a former NAIA All-American from Mountain State University.

He'll welcome the return of former Lakeland Community College star Brendan Cooper - a former St. Bonaventure recruit - next year.

It was a little brash for Calhoun to announce his intentions to win the conference and a national championship, but he's not nearly as far away as expected when he took over.

*  *  *

THE GREAT mystery has been solved.

West Liberty - as predicted - won its third consecutive conference tournament title, but not everybody thought the Hilltoppers should be favored coming into the season.

The Hilltoppers reached the Division II Elite Eight last year and returned their eight top scorers, but still fell short of being a unanimous vote for preseason No. 1.

The only first-place vote not going to West Liberty went to Fairmont State, and instantly the rumors swirled that Calhoun, with confidence in hand, predicted his team would come out on top.

Surprise, but it wasn't him.

It was West Liberty Coach Jim Crutchfield.

"I would never vote my team No. 1," he said after his team defeated Fairmont State on Saturday.

Crutchfield voted Fairmont State to win the conference, and while he never has voted West Liberty at the top, this has to be the closest he's come in the three consecutive years the Hilltoppers won regular season and conference championship.

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at richstevens@dailymail.com or 304-348-4837.


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