The West Liberty University football team will kick off a new era this fall when the Hilltoppers play their first season as members of the Mountain East Conference.
The Black and Gold are one of 12 charter members of the NCAA's 25th Division II all-sports league but even though there are plenty of familiar faces in West Liberty's new conference home and on the schedule, veteran Hilltopper head coach Roger Waialae isn't sure what to expect.
"Not only did we add three new conference opponents," Waialae said, "but several of the schools we played last year have new coaching staffs. That's just part of the challenge. I've always been more focused on controlling what we can control, which is getting a little better at doing what we do every time we take the field."
Waialae and his Hilltoppers are coming off a 6-5 season which included wins against regionally-ranked Shepherd and UNC-Pembroke. It was the seventh winning season in eight years for Waialae, who carries a 53-36 (.596) record into his 9th season at the West Liberty helm.
The Hilltoppers' 11-game slate, which features nine MEC games and a pair of challenging non-conference contests, kicks off on Sept. 7 with one of those non-league games.
West Liberty heads to Salisbury, N.C. for a rematch with Catawba (N.C.) out of the South Atlantic Conference. The Hilltoppers will be trying to avenge last year's 24-3 loss at Russek Field in a game that saw West Liberty tie a school record with eight turnovers.
"It's a good schedule," Waialae said. "The two non-conference games will be challenges. We'll be Catawba's first game with a new coach so they might have some surprises for us and Duquesne's a scholarship school now. When you add those two games to our league schedule, we definitely have our work cut out for us."
West Liberty opens its MEC slate at home on Sept. 14 against Glenville State before hitting the road on Sept. 21 at West Virginia State. A Sept. 28 visit from Concord closes out the season's opening month.
October kicks off with a bang as the Hilltoppers head to Pittsburgh for an Oct. 5 non-conference game against Football Championship Series (FCS) Duquesne. West Liberty goes back on the MEC road the following week with an Oct. 12 trip to Fairmont State before hosting Urbana (Ohio) in an MEC tilt on Oct. 19 followed by an Oct. 26 journey to West Virginia Wesleyan.
Charleston comes to Russek Field on Nov. 2 and West Liberty makes the long trek south on Nov. 9 to take on Virginia-Wise. The Hilltoppers close out the regular season on Nov. 16 with an MEC home game against Notre Dame (Ohio).
Waialae is optimistic about West Liberty's new conference affiliation.
"The NCAA uses a formula to select its (Division II) playoff teams," Waialae said. "With nine league games this year and 10 next year, that will help level the playing field in terms of strength of schedule with the other conferences in the region.
"For example, Charleston went 9-2 and didn't make the playoffs last year. Shepherd was 8-3 and barely got in. The way the math works in that formula, if it goes down like that again this year, there's a good chance that both teams would get in. I can't speak for the other sports but I think the MEC will be good for football."
Waialae and the Hilltoppers are currently in the midst of spring drills, which will conclude with the annual Black-and-Gold Game on April 20.