By Cam Huffman
At the West Virginia University Coaches Caravan Thursday at The Resort at Glade Springs, both head football coach Dana Holgorsen and men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins spoke about the Mountain State’s love for the state’s flagship university and its athletic teams.
The problem for those two coaches in recent years has been that most of the players who fill their rosters don’t know about the state’s tradition, its work ethic or its love for the Mountaineers. In a state that produces a handful of Division I athletes each year, the recruiting trail runs well beyond the state’s borders, and players from New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania or even Texas simply don’t understand what the name on the front of their jerseys represents.
Holgorsen and Huggins have tried their best to relay that message to their players, but both are trying a different approach this year, bringing in some state natives to help with those duties.
Holgorsen will welcome 15 preferred walk-ons from around the state when school begins this fall — including two from the area, Shady Spring’s Houstin Syvertson and Greenbrier West’s Zach Johnson.
“We made a concerted effort to hit a bunch of high schools across the state and recruit guys to come be a part of the program,” said Holgorsen, entering his third year on the WVU sidelines. “I think we’re at about 15 guys statewide that want to be Mountaineers. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff with our existing team to teach them what it’s about to be a Mountaineer, as well.
“We sign so many guys from out of state. I’m the same as about 90 percent of the people on our team. We’re not from here, so we have to learn about the state and about the traditions.”
Huggins, a Mountain State native himself, is taking a similar approach. He already has Greenbrier East graduate Richard Romeo on his team as a walk-on, and both Shady Spring’s Chase Connor and Webster County’s Brett Morris signed letters of intent to join the program as walk-ons within the last two weeks.
“We’re excited about it,” said Huggins. “I think part of our problem was that initially, guys really bought into the state and what it meant. Then they didn’t do it. I think those guys will really help us in that regard.”
But neither coach is bringing in those players to simply stand and watch. They’re also confident that the incoming state products have the tools necessary to make an impact.
“They’re going to have an opportunity to play,” said Holgorsen. “We won’t treat them any differently than a young scholarship guy coming in. We’re going to give them an opportunity to play football. You never know when a guy is going to step up.”
Holgorsen mentioned wide receiver Connor Arlia as an example. A walk-on from Weirton, the junior has earned a scholarship and is expected to play a major role in the offense this season.
“Once they get there, it’s all about how they progress,” he explained. “We watch film to make sure they’re capable, and we get guys that want to be there. Some guys come in and are perfectly fine with just being a part of the team. They’re not good enough to get on the field on Saturdays, but it means so much to them that they’re going to practice hard and try to make our guys better.”
Other guys, he said, find a way to get on the field.
With a much smaller roster, Huggins expects each of his walk-ons to compete for playing time.
“They’re good players,” said the WVU hoops mentor. “They can make plays and make shots. They’re the same as everybody else. If they deserve to play, they’ll play. We don’t treat them any different than anybody else.
“I think West Virginia basketball is getting better and better. Certainly, where I am, I hope it does.”
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Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops made headlines earlier this month when he suggested that the Big 12 might actually be a better conference, top to bottom, than the SEC, which has won the last six national championships.
Holgorsen made similar statements Thursday night.
“It’s a very competitive conference,” he said. “Top to bottom, it might be the strongest conference out there. The SEC has won a lot of national championships and has top 10 teams every year, but top to bottom the Big 12’s got a chance to be one of the best.”
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Holgorsen also addressed the battle to replace Geno Smith at quarterback, beginning with the addition of Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, who will have two years left to play for WVU after graduating early at FSU.
“He’s been good,” said Holgorsen of the son of former WVU offensive line coach Rick Trickett. “He brings something to the table that the other guys don’t have. He’s got experience. He really wanted to come back to West Virginia. The day after his graduation, he was in a car driving back to West Virginia. He really wants to be here, and we’re going to give him an opportunity to compete. We never promised him anything.”
One candidate he won’t have to battle is freshman Chavas Rawlins, who recently announced he was leaving the program.
“I want guys that want to be Mountaineers,” said Holgorsen, refusing to comment further on the reasons for the move. “Change is going to happen, and if guys don’t handle change, they don’t want to be part of the program. The program’s bigger than any coach or any player. You either want to be a Mountaineer or you go somewhere else.”
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Huggins has also had to deal with some attrition, but he had little to say about the recent departure of Keaton Miles.
“There’s nothing wrong with transferring,” he said. “Guys have to find where they’re happy and where they can play.”
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WVU announced Thursday that its basketball team was one of eight teams selected to play in the Triple Crown Cancun Challenge at the Aventura Palace Resort near Playa del Carmen, Mexico, this November.
This year’s Riviera Division features Old Dominion (CUSA), Saint Louis (Atlantic 10), West Virginia (Big 12) and Wisconsin (Big Ten). The Mayan Division will include Bowling Green (Mid-American), Georgia Southern (Southern), Oral Roberts (Southland) and Presbyterian (Big South).
The tournament format includes eight games played in the United States (Nov. 21 and 23) where the four teams in the Riviera Division host the four schools in the Mayan Division. All eight teams then travel to Mexico for two games played in their respected divisions (Nov. 26-27). All four games of the Riviera Division will be nationally televised live in HD from the Aventura Palace Convention Center on CBS Sports Network. The Mayan Division games will be webcast on CBSsports.com.
“I think it’s going to be great,” said Huggins. “It’s a great place for our fans, and our guys will have a great time.”