Before the Battle

Sitting in the press room more than two hours before one of the biggest basketball games that West Virginia has played in my nearly 25 years as a Mountaineer fan, I feel a little bit like I did just before my first collegiate class. I am proud, confident and excited, but nervousness is the emotion that has taken over the most.

As a writer, the only thing I know to do to pass the time is to sit down with my laptop, or in this case one I borrowed, and put my thoughts down on paper. Many of you are probably feeling the same way, so although my ramblings may not threaten to win a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon, it may provide you with a release to make the hours pass.

The main thought that I want to express is how proud everyone who is a West Virginia native, a WVU graduate or simply a friend of the Mountaineer program should be of this team. Over the four days I have spent in New York I have watched perennial powers such as Notre Dame, Connecticut, Georgetown and Pitt leave Madison Square Garden with their heads hung low and talents like Craig Smith, Jared Dudley, Josh Boone, Charlie Villanueva and Chris Thomas leave New York City without the trophy they so desperately desired. Even some of the men considered to be the best coaches in the nation, Al Skinner, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson III have been forced to leave the 11-team field.

But through it all, an upstart group of scrapping Mountaineers has had to extend its reservations day after day. While some of the above big names are watching on television, guys like Mike Gansey, Kevin Pittsnogle, Frank Young, Joe Herber, Tyrone Sally and J.D. Collins, who received interest from very few schools coming out of high school, are still playing in front of the bright lights of the ESPN cameras. They may not have the name on the back of their jerseys thrown in the trash, as Dan Dakich once demanded, but each and every player in Blue and Gold this evening will be playing for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.

They will be playing for a head coach that believed in them when nobody else did. They will be playing for a man that defended each and every one of them through and down-stretch in mid-January and they will be playing for a state that is better known for taking cheap insults than for making a run at basketball supremacy.

Everything this team has earned, 21 wins, a spot in the NCAA tournament, the respect of one of the top conferences in America and a new following of otherwise unbiased fans, they have earned with their hearts. The scouting reports were not wrong. These Mountaineers were not blessed with the god-given talent of guys like Hakim Warrick and Josh Boone, but they have qualities that most coaches refuse to measure. They have heart, they have brains, they are determined and they are confident.

If the coach tells any one of the 14 players on West Virginia's roster to hit the floor, they hit the floor. If he explains to one of his Mountaineers that he is needed in practice but not as much in the heat of battle, the player will give it his all on the practice floor, but if is name is called, he will be ready to play.

This team puts the lessons that every youth league coach preaches from the beginning to work, and it has proven that the messages are still valuable ones. By hitting its foul shots, diving for loose balls, playing fundamental defense and making crisp two-handed passes, this team has earned its self a spot on a stage that is often reserved for showboats who are filled with talent but also filled with enormous egos.

As proud as it makes me to read, "2005 Big East Championship, West Virginia vs. Syracuse" on the marquee outside the world's most famous arena, hearing some of the country's most famous sports media figures, and even some casual observers speak about the class, dignity and heart that this West Virginia team displays is what truly brings goose bumps to my arms.

So whether WVU walks off the floor with the Big East trophy and pieces of the net or it has to watch Syracuse celebrate yet another championship, no fan, player, coach or student should be ashamed to call themselves a Mountaineer. What this team has done, not what guys like O.J. Simpson, Allen Iverson, Dennis Rodman or Ray Lewis have done, is what makes sports as valuable as they are to American society.

I will leave New York, no matter the situation, with my head held high and my Blue & Gold prominently displayed, and I hope wherever you are, you will do the same. Now pop up a batch of popcorn, pour your favorite beverage into your lucky Mountaineer glass and pull up a seat to watch West Virginia's Mountaineers make the state proud once again. I want to hear your cheers all the way in New York.

Let's Go Mountaineers!


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