Football is king in the Ohio Valley and there is no disputing it.
For that, the OVAC Cup Tournament seemingly goes unnoticed. But make no mistake about it, the annual tournament is the hidden gem of the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference.
Coming from someone that knows what it's like to advance all the way to Monday night at Wheeling Island Stadium, it's one of the biggest thrills and most competitive tournaments the OVAC puts on.
This year is no different. But unlike previous years, there is no one favorite in either the boys' or girls' race. This one is easily the most wide-open tournament we've had in a long time.
(1) Weir vs. (8) Morgantown (8)
(2) University vs. Parkersburg South (7)
(3) St. Clairsville vs. Wheeling Park (6)
(4) Steubenville Catholic vs. Steubenville (5)
For the past four seasons, OVAC Soccer Director Chuck Robinson could have easily renamed this the Wheeling Park Invitational.
Despite playing some tough games, Wheeling Park was never really threatened. This year is a little bit different.
The Patriots got off to a rough start but have stormed back to earn the 5 seed and a date with an up-and-coming St. Clairsville squad. Coach Gary Watt is making soccer relevant again at St. Clairsville and knocking off the old guard could be just the shot in the arm that this program needs.
Outside of Wheeling Park, the only team in the field to hoist the trophy previously is Weir.
Joe Pepe's squad captured the title in 1996, but since then, it's been a lot of heartbreak for the Red Riders. Weir enters as the No. 1 seed and faces a dangerous task in Morgantown in the first round. That may not be a good thing. The Red Riders have twice entered as the No. 1 seed and been sent home early.
The most intriguing matchup of the first round features two teams from Steubenville, in Big Red and Steubenville Catholic.
Coach Greg Bowers' Big Red squad has lost in the finals the last three years. Could this finally be the year? Not if the Crusaders have anything to do with it.
University and Parkersburg South are making their initial forays into the tournament.
Finals Prediction: Wheeling Park d. University.
If there is ever a season to get Wheeling Park, this may be it. Am I sure in this prediction? Not really. But a wise man once said, ''To be the man, you've got to beat the man.'' So I am going with Coach Mario Julian and the Patriots to make it five in a row.
(1) Morgantown vs. East Liverpool (8)
(2) Wheeling Central vs. St. Clairsville (7)
(3) Wheeling Park vs. Brooke (6)
(4) Linsly vs. Steubenville Catholic (5)
Morgantown, the defending Class AAA state champion and OVAC Cup champion, looks strong again. Former Linsly standout Ashley Neal leads her undefeated team into action against East Liverpool.
The Mohigans won't be the only team entering the tournament without a blemish. Wheeling Central has lit the scoreboard up this season and, more importantly, kept teams off of it. The Maroon Knights, who have outscored their opponents 82-6, face St. Clairsville.
There's no love lost when Wheeling Park and Brooke get together in any sport, but this will be as entertaining as any game in the tournament. The Patriots defeated the Bruins, 3-2, earlier in the year. There is always that game in the tournament that features two evenly matched teams and reaches a shootout. This could be it.
Linsly won the title two seasons ago and has a lot of offensive power behind Maleha Kureishy, Taylor Cunningham, and Gift Chima. The Crusaders are familiar with them, having just played the Cadets last week, a 4-1 victory for Linsly.
Finals Prediction: Morgantown d. Wheeling Park
I am going with the champ again. The two played earlier in the season with Morgantown earning a 2-0 victory. Wheeling Park may have a tougher road and that can play a major factor in a long tournament like this. Wheeling Park keeps it close but the Mohigans pull away in the second half.
Josh Strope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org