Shepherd Is the Overwhelming Favorite in MEC
By DON CLEGG
BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — The winds of change are blowing a gale through the Mountain East Conference on and off the football field these days but one thing remains the same.
Shepherd was made the overwhelming favorite to win its fourth straight MEC title when the league’s coaches revealed the results of their annual preseason poll earlier this month.
It’s hard to overstate how dominant the Rams have been during the MEC’s five-year run. The Eastern Panhandle squad has posted an eye-popping 55-6 record during that time but four of those six losses have come in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Shepherd is 47-2 in league play since the MEC came into being and is riding a 30-game conference winning streak dating back to 2014.
That dominance is about to come to an end, however, as this will be the Rams’ last lap around the Mountain East Conference. Shepherd announced earlier this year that it would join the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, beginning in the 2019-20 academic year.
UVa-Wise is also leaving the conference after this season and will begin competing in the South Athletic Conference next fall, but the MEC will still have 11 football-playing schools next season.
Frostburg State (Md.) was introduced last month as the conference’s newest member. The Maryland school is making the transition from NCAA Division III to NCAA Division II status.
Wheeling Jesuit will round out the lineup in 2019. The Cardinals, who are playing a club schedule this fall, will move up to full varsity status next season.
There have been plenty of on-field changes for the MEC, as well, not the least of which again involves Shepherd.
Hall of Fame coach Monte Cater retired after racking up more wins (245) than any active college coach at any level. Cater brought a staggering 17 conference titles to Shepherdstown during his dazzling 31-year run before handing the reins to long-time assistant Ernie McCook.
In a league known for putting up big offensive numbers, MEC fans will also be missing some familiar faces on the conference leaderboard. Four of last season’s top five passers, four of the top six rushers and three of the top four receivers all graduated.
That might seem to leave the door open for a dark horse to trot through but the coaches — creatures of habit to a man — weren’t buying that in their preseason voting.
Shepherd received six of the 11 first-place votes and 94 points to lead the balloting. Fairmont State collected three of the remaining first-place votes and 88 points but barely edged out Notre Dame for the No. 2 spot as the Ohio school picked up one first-place vote and 87 points. Charleston got the last first-place vote and was fourth with 63 points while West Virginia State (61) rounded out the top five.
West Liberty led a three-team logjam in the middle of the pack with 45 points followed by UVa-Wise (44) and West Virginia Wesleyan (42). Glenville State (35), Urbana (34) and Concord (12) rounded out the list.
Shepherd is one of several teams that will be breaking in new quarterbacks but the Rams are loaded on defense and always have a reliable rushing attack. Preseason All-America WR Ryan Feiss will be an inviting target for the new signalcaller.
Fairmont has 16 returning starters, including nine on offense, but the Falcons will still rely heavily on a defense led by standout DBs Stephen Turner and Michael Porter along with LB Jerry Iweh.
Notre Dame has quietly gone 16-4 in MEC play during the past two seasons and, despite the loss of record-setting QB Malik Grove, could make a run at postseason play behind seven returning All-MEC standouts and a deep and talented stable of running backs.
Charleston returns starting QB Mason Olszewski, who ranked among the NCAA leaders with a 69 percent completion rate in an injury-shortened 2017 season. West Virginia State returns a strong nucleus but will miss former St. Clairsville standout QB Matt Kinnick, who passed for nearly 3,000 yards last fall.
West Liberty has the talent to be a factor if the Hilltoppers can avoid the injuries that have hit early and often over the past two seasons while UVa-Wise will try to go out with a bang with eight returning starters on the offensive side of the ball.
Wesleyan hopes to rely on an improving defense after playing 20 true freshmen a year ago while Glenville could surprise behind sophomore QB Jaylen McNair, who passed for nearly 2,000 yards and 20 TDs during his freshman campaign.
Urbana is rebuilding with youth after going 5-6 last fall while Concord tries to find an offensive spark after a 2-9 season that saw the Mountain Lions rank last in the MEC in Total Offense, Passing Offense and Rushing Offense.
The MEC schedule kicks off on Aug. 30 with a trio of Thursday night games — West Liberty at Urbana, Glenville State at UVa-Wise and West Virginia State at Charleston. Fairmont State travels to Stonehill (Mass.) for a rare Friday night contest on Aug. 31. Opening weekend concludes on Sept. 1 with Shepherd at Notre Dame and Concord traveling to West Virginia Wesleyan.