PRINCETON - It's hard to climb to the top of the heap in the West Virginia Conference but in recent years it's become even harder to stay there.
The 2011 season produced the fourth different champion in the past four years in an improving league that has seen more ups and downs in recent years than a yo-yo on a rollercoaster. In those four seasons, every WVIAC football team has had at least one season at or above .500 and at least one season at or below .500.
During that span, seven of the nine WVIAC teams have cracked the NCAA Division II coaches' Top 25 poll and three WVIAC schools have posted NCAA playoff victories. Shepherd even advanced to the 2010 NCAA Division II national semifinals after winning the league's first Super Region One title.
A year ago, two WVIAC teams finished in the Top 25 No. 22 Shepherd (9-2) and No. 24 West Virginia Wesleyan (9-2) but Concord (7-4) earned its first WVIAC crown in more than two decades and first NCAA playoff trip with a 7-1 league mark that included victories against Shepherd and Wesleyan.
Not surprisingly, those three teams were at the top of the WVIAC coaches' 2012 preseason poll. Shepherd was No. 1 with six of the nine first-place votes while Concord was No. 2 and Wesleyan No. 3.
Charleston was fourth followed by Fairmont State, Glenville State and West Liberty with Seton Hill and West Virginia State bringing up the rear.
Don't go running off to Las Vegas with the coaches' picks, however. Concord was No. 5 in last year's preseason poll while Wesleyan was No. 7 but they both wound up beating preseason No. 1 Shepherd.
Such is life in the West Virginia Conference.
Here's a look at the conference heading into 2012:
Veteran head coach Monte Cater welcomes back 14 starters and 40 lettermen from last year's team. QB Bobby Cooper returns after completing 65 percent of his passes for 2,161 yards and 16 TDs while TB Kenny Williams rushed for 842 yards and 14 TDs. Graduation left a few holes on the offensive line but the defense is virtually intact, led by All-Region DE Howard Jones (12 sacks, 23.5 tackles-for-loss) and All-Region FS Corey Washington. CB Elijah Davis ranked among the WVIAC leaders with six interceptions.
Garin Justice's head coaching debut was a big success as the former WVU lineman earned WVIAC Coach of the Year honors. With 15 returning starters, the Mountain Lions should challenge again. All-WVIAC QB Zack Grossi is back after throwing for 2,541 yards and 17 TDs. So is WR Ryan Stewart (44 catches, 831 yards, 10 TDs) but All-WVIAC TB Brian Kennedy and C Brandon Link must be replaced. The defense will miss WVIAC Defensive Player of the Year LB Joe Greenway but LB Jake Lilly (115 tackles) returns along with All-WVIAC NG Josh Miller.
Graduation hit the Bobcats hard as second-year coach Jonas Jackson has only nine starters back. Among the missing are QB Adam Neugebauer, the WVIAC Offensive Player of the Year who led the nation in total offense (365.2 ypg.) while throwing for 4,111 yards and 40 TDs, and All-Region WR Jon Meadows, who led the nation in receptions with 99 catches for 1,275 yards and 10 TDs. Nate Montana, son of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana, gets first crack at the QB job while University of Richmond transfer WR Donte Boston bolsters the receiving corps. All-America DE Jonas Celian and All-WVIAC LB Jesse Robertson lead the defense.
The Golden Eagles finished strong, winning five of their last six games under first-year coach Pat Kirkland, but return a WVIAC-low eight starters. All-Region TB Jordan Roberts is back after leading the WVIAC with 1,430 rushing yards and 17 TDs. Junior OL George Davilla also returns off an All-Region campaign. The defense will be paced by DE Jeff Green, who ranked among the WVIAC leaders with 11 QB sacks last fall.
All eyes will be on the quarterback spot as two-year starter Logan Moore left school after spring drills. He'll be replaced by juco transfer Bobby Vega. With 14 starters returning, plenty of pieces are in place for coach Mike Lopez. Florida State transfer TB Daniel Monroe debuted last fall with 999 rushing yards and 13 TDs to earn WVIAC Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. All-WVIAC OL Chris Barfield leads a solid offensive line while All-WVIAC LB Garrett Davis (101 tackles, eight sacks) and second-team All-WVIAC DBs Dewey McDonald and Ryland Newman are defensive stars. All-American KR/PR Matt Wilmer is also a receiving threat.
Second-year Pioneers coach David Hutchison will be counting on several newcomers to contribute immediately with only 10 starters expected to return. QB Darold Hughes completed 57 percent of his passes for 2,002 yards and 12 TDs but he's the only skill position starter returning. All-WVIAC DT James Washington anchors the defensive front with FS Terry Reese returning in the secondary.
The Hilltoppers could rebound after an injury-riddled 2011 campaign ended a run of six straight winning seasons for Coach Roger Waialae. West Liberty's 15 returning starters are tied with Concord for tops in the league. All-WVIAC WR Brandon Schroeder is the conference's top returning wideout with 76 catches for 1,007 yards. Senior QB L.D. Crow passed for nearly 2,500 yards and should benefit from a rejuvenated offensive line that was gutted by injuries last fall. DL Leonidas Redding heads a quality defensive front while LB Kyle Agustin ranked among the WVIAC leaders with 91 tackles. All-WVIAC SS Alec Wood will redshirt after being hurt in spring drills but FS Marco Ricchetti was the team's second-leading tackler and had three blocked kicks.
The Griffins have won four of their last 34 games since a 2008 NCAA Division II playoff victory against American International. Coach Joel Dolinski has 13 starters back from last year's 1-10 team, including all five offensive line starters, but QB Ryan Morris is the only other offensive regular returning. He threw for 1,600 yards and nine TDs. Junior DB Brandon Alexander is the only returning SHU player to earn All-WVIAC recognition last fall. Alexander was a special-mention pick on defense.
The Yellow Jackets had only one win last fall but may have deserved a better fate as five of their nine losses came by eight points or less. QB Ricky Phillips leads 12 returning starters for Coach Earl Monroe. Phillips passed for 2,460 yards and 18 TDs while picking up nearly 300 more yards on the ground. WR Ervin Kent is back after catching 34 passes for 580 yards last season but the offensive line must be rebuilt. LBs Chris Young and Tyler Long lead the defense after combining for 132 tackles a year ago.