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Rams start fast in new league

By Staff | Jan 13, 2014

Maiden voyages are usually reserved for the Titanic, Queen Elizabeth II or your grandfather’s fiberglass canoe.

Shepherd men’s basketball team is in the first leg of its maiden voyage in the unfamiliar Mountain East Conference. But it’s not a totally unfamiliar scenario for the 2013-14 Rams.

Most of the schools in the conference had been yoked with the Rams in the long-standing West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, a league that breathed its last when the school term closed in May of 2013.

The West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference dismantled itself.

An ambitious plan was brought forward that was aimed at bringing more name recognition to the colleges asked to form the new Mountain East Conference. There would be more media attention focused on the schools, all with student enrollments of 5,000 or fewer.

Additional opportunities to appear on teleivision and on the Internet were proposed. The founder of the new conference often mentioned a “broader footprint: for the colleges being invited to join the new league.

Shepherd and a group of other WVIAC schools thought it was a worthy undertaking. The Rams, Fairmont, Charleston, West Liberty, Wheeling Jesuit, West Virginia State, Glenville, West Virginia Wesleyan and Concord threw their lot in with Urbana (Ohio), Notre Dame (Ohio) and University of Virginia at Wise to form a 12-school conference that petitioned the NCAA for recognition.

Left standing in a little circle by themselves were Alderson-Broaddus, Davis & Elkins, Ohio Valley, Bluefield, Pitt-Johnstown and Seton Hill (Pa.). Those six schools were left univited.

The first-ever basketball season would see a true round-robin format with each team playing all 11 of the others at home and on the road for a 22-game Mountain East Conference schedule.

For scores and scores of seasons, Shepehrd basketball temas had made the sometimes arduous trips along Interstates 68, 79 and 81 to outposts like Philippi, Elkins, Bluefield, Vienna, Johnsotown (Pa.) and Greensburg (Pa.).

Those places were gone from the schedule.

But they were replaced by Wise (Va.). way down in the rural neck of southwestern Virginia, by South Euclid (Ohio) just outside Cleveland and by Urbana (Ohio), a town more than a stone’s throw from the James Rumsey Monument overlooking the Potomac River in Shepherdstown.

None of the new schools to Shepherd’s basketball sphere of influence were going to be the national power that is West Liberty. None had the emphatic history of Fairmont or Charleston or West Virginia State.

But the new faces were stationed in Ohio and Virgiina, one school just outside Cleveland, a place no Shepherd team even the ones coached more than a few seasons back by John Newcome had visited for a basketball game. The “footrpint” the 2013-14 Rams would make would be entirely new to those areas.

Being a first-year conference, the MEC will not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II national tournament waiting for is champion. Any schools getting a wave to the tournament by the selection committee in Indianapolis will come in with an at-large bid.

Since unbeaten West Liberty is tne No. 1-ranked team in the nation, it is almost a certainty the Hilltoppers will receive a bid even if they find trouble enough to keep them from going through a spotless regular season.

Shepherd, Fairmont, Glenville and Charleston have found the most success in games played from mid-November until the usual Christmas break the small college teams take.

Shepherd was dripped from the MEC list of teams with unbeaten conference records. After winning its first four conference games before the first semester ended and Christmas closed the schedule for about three weeks, the Rams drove deep into Ohio and were shaded by Notre Dame.

1.West Liberty made its own visits. But the Hilltoppers had a more leisurely stroll through the competition in Puerto Rico and kept their unbeaten head above the Division II waters.

All 12 of the basketball-playing MEC teams will be a somewhat travel-weary bunch when the conference schedule is completed at the end of next month. Trips of seven and eight hours are not out of the ordinary this season. Those schools that use chartered buses hae the happiest players. Those that still travel by school vans are making new “imprints” all right, but most of their previously unseen stops are at new-to-the-players service stations, McDondald’s restrooms and other fast food dispensers of good tidings.

It’s the Mountain East Conference. The “footprints” are supposed to make friends and influence people.

And much of the influence is being made by undefeated West Liberty and its No. 1 national ranking.