Truly a team: W.Va. came together for OVAC

On July 19, strangers became friends. In the dormitories at Bethany College, those friends soon became brothers.

Then, at Wheeling Island Stadium on Sunday, those brothers became winners.

And they won’t forget it for the rest of their lives.

“It was the most fun experience I ever had,” said Aaron Walker, a quarterback on the 2015 OVAC All-Star Game champion West Virginia team. “My teammates and I plan on keeping in touch forever.”

Like the thousands of players who came before them, this year’s athletes who made up the 70th edition of the game were part of one of the most treasured traditions in the Ohio Valley.

But this year’s West Virginia team may stand above the rest.

“This felt like more of a team than any other team I’ve played on,” said Linsly graduate and OVAC MVP Chimechi Oparanozie. “It didn’t even take two days for us all to get along. It’s like we’re all brothers.”

West Virginia head coach Ian Whittington said he instituted team-bonding exercises, along with a lot of “screaming, yelling and laughing” to loosen up the group from the start.

“You can’t beat them up every day and expect them to play a football game,” Whittington said. “You have to do the enjoyable things. We had a lot of fun together and that was the most important thing.”

Fun led to confidence early on.

“We had a lot of confidence in ourselves because there was a great team camaraderie,” said Zahir Hicks, a Weir High graduate. “The first team who comes together and becomes a brotherhood, will be the team that wins. We clicked right off the bat.”

“I can’t really explain it,” said Walker, a former Brooke standout. “Since day one, we had a lot of chemistry. These kids didn’t seem like strangers at all. We were automatically on the same page and we welcomed each other with open arms. We all loved each other and had the same thoughts on everything.

“We all sat in one room on the first night of camp, just goofing around. We had the same sense of humor and that brought us together right away. The brotherhood really showed. We had a great group of kids on this West Virginia team.”

These are guys who played against each other for the past four years. The previous rivalries were soon forgotten as a new enemy emerged: Ohio.

It was evident throughout the week that tempers were rising as the day of the big game crept closer and closer. Not long after the opening kickoff, a fight broke out near the West Virginia sideline. It started with a rough tackle, escalated with pushing and shoving, and was capped when a few players lost their helmets.

Offsetting penalties were issued, but no players were ejected.

“I saw them attacking my teammates,” Walker said. “I look at these kids as brothers. I don’t let anyone hurt my brothers. I take that stuff to heart.”

The 33 players and their coaching staff will have lifelong memories etched in their hearts and a 35-7 victory that will forever remain in the record books.

(Peaslee, a Weirton resident, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)