OVAC opportunity more than makes up for NCAC’s breakup

AT FIRST IT SEEMED LIKE a catastrophe: The NCAC was being split apart. Elkins, Buckhannon-Upshur, North Marion, East Fairmont and Fairmont Senior high schools all set their sights on a move to the Big 10, which would leave Morgantown, University and Preston to fend for themselves.
But instead of wallowing in self pity, Morgantown and University looked at the NCAC raid as an opportunity. Rather than panic, the two schools made a move that will not only ensure the continued success of their athletic programs, but will also allow each to take a huge step up in the world of competitive high school sports.
A week ago, MHS and UHS officially became the 49th and 50th members of the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference (OVAC), which is the largest functioning athletic conference in the United States.
“I think the biggest advantage is the exposure of the school with not a lot more travel, against some quality and well-established competition,” MHS athletic director Dan Erenrich said.
The competition level in the OVAC is undeniable. In football alone, a number of national powerhouses exist, none more prominent than Steubenville, Ohio, which MHS already has scheduled for this season.
But what impresses me most about the mega-conference is the opportunities it provides to its members.
The OVAC, which more than 12,000 student-athletes call home, also boasts the largest conference track meet and wrestling tournament in the country, and awards more than $38,000 in scholarships, while recognizing 1,400 kids each year for being successful in the classroom.
“We look at change and try to find ways to enhance the experience of the kids,” said Tom Rataiczak, OVAC’s executive secretary and treasurer. “I defy anyone to find a conference that does more for its kids than we do.”
A few local, notable faces who have benefited from graduating from OVAC schools include WVU head football coach Bill Stewart, WVU head basketball coach Bob Huggins, WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong, MHS head football coach John Bowers and UHS head football coach John Kelley.
That’s just to name a few. The list goes on.
Of course, the OVAC also benefits from the move. In particular, the addition of Morgantown and University gives the conference 50 schools and allows for a desired classification change.
With five even classes, all OVAC schools will benefit by playing against schools whose enrollments most resemble their own, rather than against schools that could have as many as 700 more students. Adding a class to create more parity is an idea West Virginia has unsuccessfully toyed with for years.
The OVAC also likes that both UHS and MHS are coming in as participants in more than one sport — often, schools compete in the OVAC solely for the wrestling tourney or track meet.
“With these two schools, we’re adding schools that can contribute a full compliment at all sports, with great facilities,” Wheeling Park Principal and OVAC executive board member Bernie Dolan said at the orientation.
The national exposure the city of Morgantown gets is also appealing to the OVAC.
“Our kids coming to play in a university town where they can get looks will be very beneficial to them,” Rataiczak said. “There’s something neat about having a college town in our conference.”
As for Preston, its fate is yet to be determined. But for MHS and UHS, the collapse of the NCAC has been a blessing in disguise.
ERIC HANLON is a sports reporter for The Dominion Post. Write to him at ehanlon@dominionpost.com.