Suns and Steaks

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It goes without saying that trips to bowl games are more complete and activity-filled than your run of the mill road game. According to several Mountaineer players, the experience out west has been a magnificent change of both pace and scenery from what they are used to not only in Morgantown, but on previous bowl trips.

The Mountaineers have been in the Valley of the Sun since last Wednesday, and while the main focus has undoubtedly been on football and the Oklahoma Sooners, there has still been plenty of time to relax and enjoy all that Phoenix and the surrounding area has to offer.

Serving as the base of operations for all things WVU has been the Scottsdale Plaza Resort, located roughly 10 minutes from downtown Phoenix and approximately 30 miles from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, the site of Wednesday evening's Fiesta Bowl showdown.

The team hotel has been taken over by the Mountaineer football program, with conference rooms being transformed into meeting rooms for the respective units and positions, as well as other administrative aspects of the program such as video editing.

Though the area is also hosting Monday night's Insight Bowl matchup between Indiana and Oklahoma State, that game is serving as something of an appetizer for Wednesday's BCS main course, which by all appearances will be nothing short of a spectacle complete with all the bells and whistles inside the magnificent, state-of-the-art venue that is University of Phoenix Stadium.

"When I got here, I didn't realize how big this is," said senior safety Eric Wicks, making his fourth bowl trip as a Mountaineer. "Then, you see how serious people are about this game out here and that they treat you like kings, and you find out what a big deal it is. I'm enjoying this a lot.

For all intents and purposes, the scenery and desert terrain surrounding the Scottsdale area is far different from anything that Mountaineer players and coaches are used to. Only tight end/fullback Sam Morrone, a native of Paris, Tx., hails from the Southwest.

Stretches of flat, barren desert land accented by reddish-brown mountains are as abundant here as the plush, rolling hills of green are throughout the Mountain State. Dotting some of the Arizona rocks are fine, expensive homes which overlook the valley.

"We were riding on the bus, I saw that, and was just thinking ‘Are you serious?' And then, the Fiesta Bowl people were telling me how expensive those houses were," Wicks recalled with a chuckle.

"It's neat waking up every morning and seeing the mountains, even though they are different," added All-American offensive tackle Ryan Stanchek. "I like different though."

From a hospitality standpoint, the Fiesta Bowl folks have been as good as advertised. The hospitality room for Mountaineer players includes several X-Box video game consoles (reportedly being dominated by linebacker Mortty Ivy), as well as room to relax and kick back. During media day interviews on Monday morning, each player was escorted by Fiesta Bowl representatives stationed throughout the stadium. And of course at every turn, you can find something bearing the logo of the bowl's primary sponsor, Tostitos.

"All the chips you can eat," Stanchek noted with a grin.

As far as activities are concerned, the normal slate of team events includes public appearances, media responsibilities, and the like. With shorter practices under interim head coach Bill Stewart, the players have had more free time in the community on their own, which they have taken advantage of in a variety of ways.

Approximately 50 players attended Friday night's NBA Western Conference matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers as Steve Nash and company coasted to another blowout victory. Others are using the down time to catch up on some of their favorite college pastimes.

"A lot of guys have been going to the mall," said junior running back Steve Slaton. "I've been trying to catch up on my rest because I don't think I'm quite used to the time difference yet."

"The women out here are amazing," said fullback Owen Schmitt, who cited a local mall as a particularly prime spot to observe the locals. "There is a lot of eye candy. My goodness."

The big hit for the players was a trip to a local steakhouse called Mastro City Hall, located close to the Fashion Square Mall on Camelback Road. The spiffy restaurant drew rave reviews from virtually everyone on the Mountaineer roster.

"Two thumbs up," said senior free safety Ryan Mundy.

"Unbelievable," added quarterback Pat White. "It was great steak. Very tasty."

At the restaurant, steak is served on a piping hot plate which checks in at upwards of 400 degrees. By serving the food on such a hot dish, the steak continues to cook ever so slightly so that it is as close to perfect as can be once the players dig in. Unfortunately for a few Mountaineer players, the word of the wait staff wasn't enough proof that the plate was oven-hot.

"Some dummies really didn't believe that it was 400 degrees," said Mundy, with a roll of the eyes, "so they had to touch it and find out for themselves."

Football is certainly the main focus of everyone in blue and gold, make no mistake about it. At the same time, for a program that has seen plenty of adversity over the past month, the change of pace provided by a trip to the Fiesta Bowl has been just what the doctor ordered.

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