By Matt Welch
Times West Virginian
In the first year of the Mountain East Conference, the basketball coaches, men’s and women’s, are excited to get things rolling.
While the polls were being released during Monday’s MEC Media Day from the Bridgeport Conference Center, they were the furthest thing from any coach’s mind. Despite the fact that West Liberty topped both the men’s and women’s polls, the talk was about ushering in a new era for college basketball and celebrating a new conference.
“Change is something that comes to all of us. I’m 55 now and have experienced a lot of change in the last five years. We always have to deal with change,” Fairmont State women’s head coach Steve McDonald said. “This is good change. It’s a change that if we embrace, it is good for everyone. I think we all need to look forward instead of backward.”
Fairmont State’s men’s coach Jerrod Calhoun said the conference will look to attract large crowds this season.
“If you look at us last year against West Liberty, we had around 4,000 fans,” he said. “For a Division II program to have that many fans at a game, it shows that there’s a lot of good teams and a lot of good players.”
The Mountain East Conference, which joined the ranks of the NCAA in February, features nine schools from West Virginia, two from Ohio and one from Virginia.
Mountain East Conference commissioner Reid Amos is expecting big things from the conference as a whole and for the teams within it.
“We’re very excited about what our first Mountain East Conference basketball season will bring,” Amos said. “If you take a look at the histories of our institutions over many years and the recent history of NCAA success that many of our institutions have had, I think it’s going to be a very interesting season.”
The three non-West Virginia schools, Urbana, Notre Dame College and UVa-Wise, were independent schools before joining the Mountain East. The move, their coaches agreed, were all steps toward a better program.
“It’s certainly nice to be affiliated with a league,” Notre Dame College women’s head coach Katie Hine said. “We’ve been independent for the past couple of years and I could probably tell you that people would complain about the travel from Cleveland to West Virginia, but to actually have some consistency and to know where we’re going and to travel with our men’s team, it’s a nice thing to be a part of again.”
The consistency and ability to travel together is just one of the many perks, according to Notre Dame College men’s coach Tim Koenig.
“It really helps with scheduling. It’s really tough to get games when you’re trying to get games when everyone’s in their conference schedule,” said Koenig, who is in his first season as the Falcons’ head coach. “This will be one of the best basketball conferences in the country, and it really helps to get out on the road and recruit. Our guys want to be able to play the best, and we are going to be able to play the best. We could take some lumps but ultimately we’re going to get better because of it.”
With the new conference comes new hires.
Two of the most important hires were introduced to the media Monday in Mike Eades and Brad McMillion as supervisors of officials on the men’s and women’s side, respectively.
“Eades is one of the top officials in basketball,” Amos said. “He was selected to officiate the Final Four this year in Atlanta and he actually started his officiating career here in West Virginia. To have a West Virginia native who has long-standing ties to a good number of our institutions is a good way to start the Mountain East Conference basketball.”
Eades comes highly regarded as an official and the men’s coaches welcomed him with a warm welcome as the coaches took turns with friendly banter about their newly appointed supervisor of officials.
On the women’s side, McMillion brings more than 20 years of experience at different levels of competition.
“Brad has been a very respected Division I women’s basketball official,” Amos said of the hire. “Between Brad and Mike, I’m so pleased to have them come on board with us and work with the Mountain East.”
As the season is set to kick off for teams on Friday, most of the coaches look forward to a brand new start.
Shepherd University head coach Justin Namolik summed it up: “Everyone’s starting clean this year. That’s what I’m really excited about. I think everyone’s going to be feeling out the newcomers. I think there’s going to be kind of a feeling of unfamiliarity. It’s always been a high-scoring league. I don’t think that’s going to change. We’re going to be one of the tougher conferences in the region. I think all the coaches think highly of the conference. Every year, record wise, we compete against the PSAC and the CIAA. I would expect our conference to have three or four teams to contend for NCAA appearances year in and year out.”
Fairmont State’s men’s team was picked to finish second in the conference, with the women’s team picked to finish third.
Mountain East Conference teams begin their season this Friday.
Email Matt Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.