Waialae: Defense has been key to turnaround

WEST LIBERTY – Roger Waialae knows what it takes to be a good football team. He’s had a few in his seven seasons at West Liberty University.

“Getting guys to practice. That’s one of the biggest things this season,” Waialae said during a recent sit-down in his campus office.

Not that guys are just blowing off practice sessions. There is another thing called academics.

“We’ve got some class conflicts this season, but not nearly as many as in the past two years,” he explained. “It’s pretty bad when you get to your junior and senior seasons and you can only practice once or twice a week because of class conflicts.”

Waialae said that’s been the biggest turnaround from a dismal 1-10 season a year ago to a 4-3 (3-2 WVC) campaign so far this season.

“For the most part, we’ve tried to overcome that. More guys have been able to practice, and the more guys you can get to practice, the better they play together. Unfortunately, you can’t simulate the games as you’d like to (in practice) because of the physicality of the sport.”

He hopes his Hilltoppers can build some late-season momentum after back-to-back victories over West Virginia State and then-No. 25 Shepherd. Starting Saturday when the University of Charleston brings its 3-1 West Virginia Conference record to Russek Field for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

“Obviously, any time you get a big win like the Shepherd win you’ve got to build off of it,” Waialae stressed. “I don’t like the old adage that you learn more from losing. I want to win. I think you can take a lot more from winning.”

Another reason for the reversal of fortunes thus far, the play of the defensive unit.

“We’re playing so well as a team right now,” he allowed. “We’ve been dominant. I can’t tell you of a weakness on our defense. Our defensive line has dominated every game we’ve played and our linebackers are making the plays. That trickles to the back half (secondary). When teams can’t run the ball against us, it makes it fun for the secondary because they know what is coming.”

Leading the Hilltoppers’ defensive is junior weak safety Marco Ricchetti. The former Martins Ferry standout has enjoyed a banner season with a team-high 57 tackles, which includes 32 solo stops. It ranks him sixth is the league.

“We like to play our smartest, and best, player at weak safety because the position has so many responsibilities. That’s why we put Marco there and he’s responded. In the year’s that we’ve been good defensively, our weak safety has made a bundle of plays. Our defense is set up for that.”

The Black-and-Gold ranks high in several defensive categories, including second in rushing defense with a 92.6 per game mark. They are third in both scoring defense (18.6 pts./gm.) and total defense (315.1 yds./gm.). They also have a league-high 15 interceptions, with three being returned for touchdowns.

North can be reached at knorth@timesleaderonline.com