The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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May 5, 2013

The end of an era

The WVIAC ceased to be Saturday, with the crowning of Concord — the last ever champions

BECKLEY — After his team won the 2013 West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference baseball championship Saturday, Concord coach Andrew Wright met conference commissioner Barry Blizzard at home plate for the trophy presentation.

Before Blizzard handed the trophy over, a list of his accomplishments was read over the public address. He then shook Wright’s hand and walked away, exiting stage left. He told Tim Epling, son of Linda K. Epling Stadium owners Kay and Doug Epling, that the list was a little longer than he was expecting.

That was, Epling explained, a show of appreciation for everything Blizzard has done in his 26 years at the helm.

It was a subdued finale, not only for Blizzard’s days as commissioner but for the conference itself. After 89 years, the storied existence of the WVIAC came to an end Saturday, with the last-ever champions crowned in three sports.

The day was both emotional and bittersweet for Blizzard, who among other accomplishments oversaw the league’s transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II in 1995.

“It was very emotional,” said Blizzard, choking back tears as he spoke about the conference’s final moment. “Probably more emotional than the finals of the (WVIAC) basketball tournament (in March). But, yeah, this is it. It’s over.”

Basketball is arguably the most recognizable sport in the WVIAC. There have been notable alumni, including current Michigan head coach and former West Virginia head coach John Beilein, who played at Wheeling Jesuit, and West Virginia State’s Earl Lloyd, the first black player in the National Basketball Association.

The tournament itself is one of the longest running in the nation — men’s and women’s champions were crowned for the 74th time in March — and attendance is regularly among the highest in NCAA Division II.

The conference is steeped in history, but is now exactly that.

The nine football-playing schools — University of Charleston, Concord, Fairmont State, Glenville State, Seton Hill, Shepherd, West Liberty, West Virginia State and West Virginia Wesleyan — announced last June their plans to leave the league and form the Mountain East Conference. The new league will begin competition in August.

Since the original announcement, both Seton Hill and non-football member Pitt-Johnstown have decided to join the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. But the MEC added new members Notre Dame College and Urbana, both in Ohio, and UVa-Wise, demonstrating the league’s desire to expand its existence outside West Virginia.

UVa-Wise will not be an active Division II school until the 2015-16 academic year.

West Virginia State was Concord’s opponent in the baseball championship game Saturday. Fitting, because the Yellow Jackets have become synonymous with WVIAC baseball under legendary coach Cal Bailey.

Don’t count Bailey among those who favor the move.

“I didn’t vote to get out of the conference, nor was I asked,” said Bailey, who played at State and had a brief pro career in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. “My preference would be to be in the conference and make it all West Virginia like it used to be, and I think the rivalries would establish themselves a little bit better.

“I am not convinced that was the right move, but that’s where we’re at and that’s what we will live with.”

Blizzard may be retired, but he’s far from removed from athletics. Last week he was named the administrative coordinator for the Division II Commissioners Association, effective July 1. It is a post for which he is “humbled” to be chosen, and he won’t even have to relocate from his Princeton home.

He will also work for a consulting firm based in Atlanta.

The future appears busy for Blizzard, but he reiterated that Saturday was a day of mixed emotions.

“When I took this job (in 1987), I considered it a trust. That’s how much I care about this league,” Blizzard said. “I grew up in this league. I never worked anywhere else. To see it come to an end, in a way I’m glad that it was me that brought it to an end. Then again, I am very, very sad I didn’t have the opportunity to end my career the way I wanted to, as opposed to the way it did end.”

— E-mail: gfauber@register-herald.com

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