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Tough Challenge Lies Ahead for WLSC

September 21, 2007
The football team at West Liberty State College is off to its best start in years. The unbeaten Hilltoppers are blowing out opponents by an average score of 44-12, and they’re beginning to get a little love from some of the national outlets, including Don Hansen’s Football Gazette, where they’re ranked No. 33.

In short, they’re right where they want to be.

On Saturday afternoon, they likely will not be, considering the road to the NCAA Division II playoffs doesn’t necessarily run through Mars Hill, North Carolina, even if the highly regarded South Atlantic Conference seemingly has its own entrance ramp.

So how did West Liberty wind up with a road game roughly 7¢ hours away?

Well, for starters, Duquesne was in this spot last season, but it’s unlikely the Dukes wanted any part of continuing that ‘‘series’’ after the Hilltoppers beat them last season and were about to bring just about everyone back this season.

As it is, the Dukes are off to an 0-2 start.

So when that option fizzled, West Liberty officials were scrambling for a game against a Division II school, something that would perhaps look good on a postseason resume, assuming they were able to win it.

By Week 4, most schools are already involved in conference play, meaning the Hilltoppers were going to have to expand their search.

‘‘We were calling around and trying to find a game from teams close by,’’ West Liberty coach Roger Waialae said. ‘‘We didn’t get one.’’

But WLSC Athletics Director Jim Watson is a friend of Mars Hill Athletics Director David Riggins so they hammered out a home-and-home setup for this season and next. Thus, the Hilltoppers will be taking on a Lions team that is ranked 24th in this week’s AFCA coaches’ Top 25. It will be West Liberty’s first game against a SAC member since a 10-7 victory at Newberry in 1995.

‘‘The ultimate goal is to get into the playoffs,’’ Waialae said. ‘‘We’re going to have to play playoff teams to get there so it’s good for us to play teams of this caliber. They’re (ranked) 24, and we’re getting votes in a couple of polls.’’

The Lions (3-0), who will be trying to equal last season’s victory total Saturday, are a little more familiar with West Virginia Conference foes, having won 8 of 15 games all-time against WVC schools.

The Lions last played a WVC squad in 1998, losing 24-17 to Concord.

These Lions like to run.

They’ve rushed the ball 49 times in one game already this season. They haven’t thrown it more than 20 times in any of them.

Running backs Chappel Rose and George Washington are the reasons for this. Rose ranks among the national leaders in rushing yards (107 yards per game) and scoring (14 points per game), while Washington, a preseason all-SAC selection, ran for 96 yards in his first action last weekend.

‘‘They run the football,’’ Waialae confirmed. ‘‘The run a power-I and option right at you. And they’ll try to keep you off balance by occasionally throwing the ball.’’

‘‘Occasional’’ might be the appropriate word, considering Mars Hill has attempted 56 passes in three games and run it 128, better than a 2-1 run/pass ratio. The Hilltoppers, who appear to be very much a passing team, have actually run it 127 times and thrown it 88. It’s a nice luxury to be up by three touchdowns in the third quarter.

Mars Hill has a defense that is a perfect fit with its style of play. The Lions yield 199.3 yards per game, a number that puts them eighth nationally, and they’re finishers on both sides of the ball. In the second half of their games this season, they’ve outscored the opponents 69-3.

‘‘On paper, they’re a lot like us,’’ Waialae said. ‘‘Looking at their two-deep and watching them on film, they look a lot like us. They’re not real big and they have great speed.’’

The results have been the same.

‘‘We’ve played well so far,’’ Waialae said. ‘‘In three games, we’re finding different ways to win. So far they haven’t been close. We’re playing at a high level. I love the team that we’re putting on the field. The kids are making plays and playing hard. That’s all you can ask of them.’’

Waialae would like to see that continue, even though the list of walking wounded is seemingly doubling by the minute. Quarterback Zach Amedro left last week’s game with a shoulder injury. Waialae said Amedro practiced on Thursday after tests showed no structural damage in his rotator cuff, just a bruise.

Either way, Waialae liked what Nick Rocchio showed last week and said Rocchio will get some reps Saturday.

Receiver Jarrett Ponder has an issue with his heel while Almonzo Banks is still trying to get the sting out of a hip pointer he sustained two weeks ago. Eddie Hills, the team’s leading rusher, turned an ankle recently; interception machine Darren Banks has some banged-up ribs; sack artist Kevin Dixon has a bad shin; and Greg Hopkins, a cornerback, is hampered by a hamstring tweak.

‘‘It’s nothing major, just some nagging injuries you get throughout the course of year,’’ Waialae said. ‘‘I don’t foresee anyone missing a lot of time. They’ll all play.

‘‘Fortunately for us, we have some depth. Some guys who’ve been given opportunities have stepped up. Our big time players are always going to play well, but it’s fun to see others come in an play at a high level.’’

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