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Cardinals riding wave of success behind Benner

WHEELING — Winning never gets old, and Christy Benner has done a ton of it in her 18 years as Wheeling University’s head volleyball coach.

The current campaign is another Benner-directed success story. Her Cardinals are an impressive 31-3 and still counting. In the process, the Redbirds have won their seventh straight Mountain East regular season and tournament championships.

Thus, Wheeling University has earned the right to host the NCAA D-II Atlantic Regional. The top-seeded Cardinals face Fayetteville State Thursday in their opening test at the McDonough Center.

The MEC tournament championship also marked another milestone for Benner. It was her 600th career win with the Cardinals.

Benner has elevated Wheeling University to a national power. This marks the 14th time her teams have advanced to the Atlantic Region tournament, with two advancing to the Final Four.

The exclamation point on top of all that success is Wheeling University capturing the coveted D-II national championship in 2015. She has been named MEC and region coach-of-the-year on countless occasions.

All that success and all those wins are impressive, but Benner is strictly focused on the task at hand. She wants to have her Cardinals poised for a regional title run.

“This is one of the toughest regionals I have seen in a good while. I am glad we are hosting it,” Benner said. “It was one of our goals going into the season. We knew it would be tough. Gannon was No. 2 all year and was nipping at our heels, but we took care of what we needed to do.

“It is much easier playing at home. The players will be in their normal routine,” she added. “They get to sleep in their own beds, play in their own gym in front of their family and a bigger home crowd.”

Although she has built a perennial winning program, Benner did enter the 2019 season with some concerns.

“Obviously with everything that happened with the school, we were concerned with number of players we had. We only had 12 on our roster, with 10 being returnees,” Benner said. “We lost a lot of expected returning players. We knew the 12 were good players but a lack of numbers was a definite concern.

“I felt after the preseason that if we could stay healthy that we would do well. Obviously our goal was to be No. 1 in our region, but we knew it would be tough,” she added. “I am super proud of our girls and how hard they worked. I had an inkling this could happen but all the cards had to fall in place.”

Some of those cards included navigating through a challenging conference schedule.

“Winning the MEC was very satisfying because the level of talent is really rising in the conference. It is getting more and more competitive,” she noted. “Every team we face gives us their best game. We were fortunate to go unscathed.”

And what was it like to reach 600 wins?

“I try not to think about milestones. I’d rather recognize our players. But I knew 600 wins was possible if we had a good year. It is pretty surreal,” she offered. “But right now we are focused on Fayetteville State. They are a good defensive team and block well. We will be ready when we take the court Thursday.”

The winner of this week’s regional will advance to the national champion ships in Denver, starting Dec. 12.

In 2015, fresh off her national championship, Benner was the runner-up for the West Virginia Funfari Award as the top collegiate coach.

Benner and her husband, assistant coach Matt, live in Moundsville, with their son, Max.

BUBBA’S BITS

JACK COOK enjoyed another solid outing for the University of Dayton football team in a 51-38 regular-season ending win over Butler. The redshirt sophomore QB completed 19-of-28 passes for 273 yards and four TDS. He also rushed for another six-pointer. Cook is the son of Scott and Jen Cook. Scott was a standout hoopster for Shadyside High (1988 grad) while Jen is a St. Clairsville native.

BALTIMORE RAVENS’ quarterback Lamar Jackson is a lot better than I ever gave him credit for. The big key for him is staying healthy with all the hits he will take running the ball.

WEST LIBERTY University quarterback Zach Phillips has been invited to take part in the FCS National Bowl in Florida. It is the largest non-FBS bowl in the nation. Last year, 14 NFL and six CFL teams had representatives at the game.

THE BERRY College (Rome, Ga.) football team enjoyed another successful season. The Vikings finished with a 9-2 mark, losing in the first round of the NCAA D-III playoffs to Huntingdon, 27-24, last weekend. Martins Ferry native and Bethany College grad Rich Duncan is Berry’s offensive coordinator. The Vikings are 39-6 over the past four years with four straight conference titles.

FORMER WHEELING Jesuit head men’s basketball coach John Peckinpaugh won his debut as Noblesville High (Ind.) boys’ coach last week.

HATS OFF to Colton McKivitz on an amazing football career at WVU. The former Union Local star started 47 games on the offensive line for the Mountaineers, playing at an extremely high level which drew the praise of head coach Neal Brown. McKivitz’s blocking and leadership skills will be reflected when it comes to the NFL Draft.

SPEAKING OF WVU football, Neal Brown’s off-season turned much brighter with the Mountaineers win over TCU. The upset yields much optimism while aiding recruiting efforts. The 5-7 Mountaineers were a few snaps away from an 8-4 campaign.

THE MUCH-ANTICIPATED rematch between the Browns and Steelers plays out today in Pittsburgh. I am picking Cleveland. The Steeler offense is anemic. The Brownies, with a soft remaining schedule, have a chance to end the regular season on a roll.

THE DENVER Broncos are struggling through a 3-8 campaign. Beaver Local High grad Derek Wolfe, however, is enjoying another solid campaign. The talented defensive lineman has recorded five quarterback sacks to go with 21 solo tackles. The former University of Cincinnati star has also forced a fumble.

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