Wheeling, West Liberty embracing local rivalry ahead of matchup
WHEELING — Rivalries in sports do not crop up overnight. The best rivalries in sports tend to have decades of history between the two teams playing back and forth. Think about the storied histories between the Red Sox and the Yankees, Ohio State and Michigan or the Lakers and the Celtics.
Now consider that Wheeling and West Liberty University will meet on the football field for just the third time ever on Saturday and it might seem hard to label the two teams as rivals. Despite their brief history, however, both sides are fully embracing the rivalry aspect of Saturday’s game.
“I think it’s phenomenal for the whole community,” said West Liberty coach Roger Waialae. “In football, our rival had always changed until they started playing football down there. Once they started football, now we do have a true rivalry game.”
“At Ohio State, it’s Michigan but at West Liberty it’s Wheeling and at Wheeling it’s West Liberty. That level of engagement is a great thing for both campuses and the community as a whole. It’s one of those calling cards for the college experience.”
“It’s become a big game in a very short amount of time and that’s a great thing for both schools,” said Wheeling coach Zac Bruney. “It’s always been a great rivalry in other sports.”
As football programs, West Liberty and Wheeling almost could not be more different. West Liberty has had football forever. Football was first played on the hilltop in 1899 and became a mainstay on campus in the 1920s. Wheeling on the other hand, started their football program in 2019, a full 120 years later.
All that time, West Liberty was on the gridiron. They enjoyed legendary coach after legendary coach and rose to national prominence a number of times but something was missing, a true rival.
“I think our kids were a little bit envious every time we came to a basketball game or a baseball game (against Wheeling),” Waialae said. “Now they’re able to experience that. Last week was homecoming and I had 100 players come back and they’re even excited about the rivalry.”
The would-be rivals first met in the 2019 season-opener. Appropriately enough, that meant the Cardinals played their first-ever NCAA football game against the Hilltoppers.
“I was kind of surprised when the schedule came out that year and that was our opener,” Bruney said. “It was fun, it was a great crowd. We probably played as well as we could possibly have played for that first game.”
The Cardinals actually held a 30-26 lead with less than a minute to play, but WLU quarterback Zach Philips threw a go-ahead touchdown pass with 31 seconds left to propel the Hilltoppers to victory. During the COVID-shortened 2020 spring season, Wheeling returned the favor and upset WLU 42-19 on their home field.
“That first game back in ’19 was a very good game that they won and then we were able to win in the spring in a game that was a lot closer than what the final score indicated,” Bruney said. “We’ve played two very good games and it’s 1-1. Now it’s round three and we’re excited for the opportunity to play Saturday.”
“It’s great for our kids to have a true rivalry like most other schools do,” Waialae said. “We were excited to have a rivalry game the first year and that continued into last spring and this fall. … It’s the same feeling (this year).”
This year’s matchup will have even more impact in the Mountain East Conference standings as both teams try to position themselves for postseason play. Wheeling (3-4, 3-3 MEC) is trying to rebound from two consecutive losses while West Liberty (4-3, 4-2) is trying to build off a come-from-behind win last week.
“The league has been pretty balanced,” Bruney said. “The conference race is relatively still tight where only one game separates six or seven teams. Top to bottom, the conference has been really balanced.”
“You can tell by the standings,” Waialae added. “There’s been a lot of close games and a lot of games have come down to the wire.”
The teams are also very similar this season. Wheeling averages 23.9 points per game and allows 19.7. West Liberty scores 22.7 and allows an average of 21.1. They both run the ball very well as Wheeling’s Sy Alli (669 rushing yards) is the third-leading rusher in the MEC and WLU’s Tyler Moler (552) sits in sixth. Both teams also sport top-end receivers with WLU’s Isaiah Robinson racking up 556 yards and six touchdowns and Wheeling’s Lowell Patron going for 466 yards and a trio of scores.
“I see a lot of similarities on film between us and them,” Bruney said. “They have a real solid defense and offensively they’re rushing the ball effectively. They’re balanced and that’s what you’ve got to be to give yourself the opportunity to play at a high level.”
The Hilltoppers recovered from a 13-7 halftime deficit to defeat Fairmont State 52-13 at West Family Stadium last week. They rode the arm of redshirt-freshman Jamie Diven, who threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns and was named the MEC Offensive Player of the Week.
“We always knew that he had the ability,” Waialae said of Diven. “I think the more games that he plays, the more things slow down for him in his mind and he’s able to make decisions faster. There’s not a whole lot of things racing through his mind while he’s standing back there.”
Diven has thrown for 768 yards and seven touchdowns with only four interceptions while filling in for injured starter Jack Allison this year.
“They’re always going to be able to throw the football,” Bruney said. “Coach Waialae has always done a great job with the passing schemes. They’ve always been able to throw the ball and stretch the field vertically.”
The Cardinals lost last week for the second week in a row, falling to Frostburg State 41-17 despite a 118-yard rushing performance by Alli. The Cardinals start Brennon Norris at quarterback. The redshirt-freshman had thrown for 1,029 yards and 10 touchdowns with six picks this season.
“They’ve got a rood running back, their quarterbacks are doing well and they have good receivers,” Waialae said of Wheeling. “Every week it seems like we’re preparing for the same style of offenses and the same style of defenses.”
Kickoff for round three of the rivalry will come at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bishop Schmitt Field on Wheeling’s campus.