WHEELING - The showdowns begin this weekend inside the parameters of West Virginia Class A football. Interestingly enough, they will all do so under the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference umbrella.
Wheeling Central (2-0), the No. 1-ranked team in the W.Va. sportswriters poll, travels Saturday to face No. 2 Madonna (2-0), in a game that has the attention of just about everyone in the state. A night earlier, No. 9 Bishop Donahue (2-0) hits the road to meet Clay-Battelle (2-0), which comes in No. 6.
It seems clear then, that the area has become the hotbed of Class A football around the state.
''It's even gotten stronger with Magnolia and Tyler Consolidated dropping down,'' Bishops coach John Durdines said. ''The single-A football in this area is stronger than I think it's ever been.
''You even look over in Ohio with the Shadysides and the Beallsvilles two years ago that went on a nice playoff run.
''There's a lot of quality small-school football that's being played.''
Durdines should know. When the preseason poll came out, Bishop Donahue, which is tied with Madonna atop The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register Small-School poll, was ticketed to play Nos. 1, 7, 8 and 15, and that didn't even include an always tough River team and a much-improved Clarksburg Notre Dame squad.
Dating back to 2000, the OVAC has seen one of its schools crowned W.Va. Class A champion eight times (Wheeling Central 7, Madonna 1) and runner-up another four. Going even farther back, since the state went to the current three-class system in 1958, the Northern Panhandle boasts 19 champs and 14 second-place finishers.
''Probably one of the most challenging schedules we have ever had. All the teams are loaded and they're all strong,'' Wheeling Central coach Mike Young said. ''There are more contenders than there have ever been.
''Magnolia, Williamstown, Wahama and East Hardy are all coming on, and Moorefield is there too.''
How this all will play out this season is still to be determined. But it will be decided on the field as the group of Madonna, Bishop and Central all play one another, and Clay-Battelle will face both the Blue Dons and the Bishops.
''With our strength of schedule, we need to take that next step,'' Durdines said. ''I think it's no longer vogue or whatever you want to call it, to go to the bigger school.
''(Players) know they can be just as successful and get just as much recognition and notice going to a smaller school.''
One thing each of these teams have in common, is they don't shy away from anyone. That's what Young is referring to when he talks about his most challenging schedule, at a school that is known for them.
''Wheeling Central got the ball rolling, Madonna's had a good program for a while and now Bishop Donahue, Clay-Battelle and Magnolia are all in the race,'' Blue Dons coach Doug Taylor said. ''I really think your best Class A football is played in our area.
''It's a cycle. Right now the single-A football is on an up swing around here.''
It's no coincidence that continuity has played a part in the success at each of these schools. For whatever reason it seems as though there is less coaching turnover on the small-school level.
''A lot of these coaches started out on the lower end and have a lot of training,'' Taylor said. ''If you look at it, they're not all playing the same type of game - the offenses and defenses are all different.''
The results are not. Strictly from a mathematical standpoint, the OVAC has a better than average shot of bringing home more Class A hardware this season.''