(Away From) Home For The Holidays

West Virginia's football and men's basketball teams won't be spending Christmas Day opening presents, feasting on traditional holiday meals or singing carols. Instead, they'll be preparing for their upcoming games. Such is life for a Division I athlete.

Many think of the holiday season as a time for spending time together with family and friends, many of whom you only see at this time of year. For the football and men's basketball teams at West Virginia University, though, this year's holiday season will be business as usual.

In Charlotte, the WVU football team is busy preparing for Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl tilt with North Carolina. The Mountaineers traveled to Charlotte on Monday and have been practicing ever since.

Then again, preparing for bowl games around the holidays has become the norm at West Virginia. This season's bowl bid marks the seventh consecutive postseason appearance for WVU's football program, and is the second time the Mountaineers have been to Charlotte.

Prior to this season, the Mountaineers had played in five consecutive New Year's Day (or shortly thereafter) bowl games (three Gator Bowl appearances, a Sugar Bowl bid and last season's Fiesta Bowl). Thus, spending the holidays away from home is old hat for many on this year's roster.

"I don't even remember the last couple of Christmases or New Year's," said sophomore linebacker J.T. Thomas, who traveled to WVU's 2007 Gator Bowl win over Georgia Tech and played in last year's Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma. "I get a little lost and caught up in football. I don't even worry about the holidays anymore. I just keep on working."

West Virginia's basketball team, meanwhile, is in the midst of its season. Last year, WVU spent the holidays preparing for a showdown in Charleston with Blake Griffin and Oklahoma, ironically just a few days before the Mountaineers and Sooners squared off on the gridiron in the desert.

This season, head coach Bob Huggins had hoped that his players could spend a little bit of time at home around the holidays. Tuesday night's scheduled game with Radford, however, prevented that. Huggins and other WVU officials had tried to get the game moved up to last week, when the Mountaineers had a week off with no classes between wins over Duquesne and Miami of Ohio. Radford rebuffed those overtures.

And with Saturday's road trip to Ohio State coming just two days after Christmas Day, Huggins had no choice but to keep his team in Morgantown instead of letting them go home. Not that Huggins is any sort of Scrooge, mind you. In fact, the second-year WVU leader gave his players the option of not practicing on Christmas Day. The players elected to anyways.

"That's what it takes, you know? If you are trying to reach a big goal, then you have to make sacrifices," said freshman forward Devin Ebanks.

Ebanks knows a thing or two about being away from home over the holidays. The highly-touted rookie spent his pre-college career in prep schools, where he was busy traveling and playing over Christmas.

"I'm used to it," he said. "I was (away from home at Christmas) in prep school, so I am pretty much used to it by now. I would say that since I was 15, I've been pretty used to it. I was always on the road and stuff like that, so it doesn't affect me a whole lot."

Da'Sean Butler has grown used to spending his holiday season in Morgantown. WVU's basketball schedule over his three seasons has yet to afford the standout forward the opportunity to go home at this time of year, though Butler did get to spend the Thanksgiving of his sophomore season participating in the Legends Classic, which takes place in his hometown of Newark, N.J.

"I remember my freshman year, I didn't go home for Christmas," Butler recalled. "Frank Young didn't go home for Christmas either because he couldn't get home. So Frank Young and I just came to the gym. (Former WVU head coach John) Beilein let us into the gym and we shot and worked out."

That's not to say that it will be all work and no play on Christmas Day for WVU's two major sports teams. Bill Stewart's Mountaineers will have a regular practice on Thursday, but will gather Thursday night for a dinner and reprised performance of the infamous preseason "Gong Show", in which WVU players impersonate their coaches, among other activities.

"I think we have something lined up for Christmas," said kicker/punter Pat McAfee, who figures to be prominently featured in the Christmas night gala after his performance in the August "Gong Show" received rave reviews from players and coaches alike. "It should be a good time. We should enjoy ourselves."

Meanwhile in Morgantown, the basketball team will gather in the home of assistant coach Billy Hahn.

"I couldn't get them all into my place," quipped Huggins, who lives in Morgantown's Waterfront Hotel.

Perhaps Ebanks put it best when he noted that not having a traditional holiday season is just a microcosm of the amount of sacrifice it takes to be a major Division I college athlete. McAfee echoed those sentiments.

"(Former head coach Rich Rodriguez) had a good saying a couple of years ago. ‘If you want to have a holiday season, ask Pitt about it.' It was a couple of years ago when Pitt wasn't going to bowl games," McAfee said. "I think that sums it up pretty well. This is what we've worked for all year long, so it's good. Obviously you would rather have (a bowl game to get ready for) than not have it."


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