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'Dogs' bark quiets boos

December 04, 2003|by MARK KELLER

keller@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Martinsburg football team has been so good the last three years it's become very easy to forget the shape the program was in when coach David Walker arrived at the school in 1997.

The Bulldogs are preparing for their second Class AAA championship game in three years Saturday against Parkersburg South, a sign of how the program has emerged from the shadows of some of its darkest days and developed into an area and state powerhouse since the turn of the century.

"It probably wasn't a real good situation for anyone to come into, with what the previous coach went through and the shape the program was in," Walker said. "It wasn't one person. It was a combination of things that were going on."

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Walker, 38, ended a successful nine-year tenure at East Hardy to take over a team that suffered through a 2-8 season in 1996 and saw its coach suspended and later resign because of alleged recruiting violations.

His start at Martinsburg was greeted with something less than enthusiasm.

"I've never been much on pep rallies, but we had one before our first game my first year and the student body booed us," Walker said. "I was shocked. We haven't had a pep rally since."

Things went from bad to worse as the Bulldogs lost their first nine games of the season, all but one of those by 22 points or more.

There were few signs that a turnaround was in sight, but Walker was in a similar situation at East Hardy, which won just once in Walker's first 20 games before qualifying for the playoffs seven straight years.

"I was beginning to wonder if I was in the wrong field. I felt like I was doing the right thing when I took that job," Walker said. "Then the kids bought in to what we were doing in the third year. They were 8-88 in the 1980s. We went 8-2 that third year."

Walker said he knew Martinsburg always had the athletes to compete with any school in the state, but it was the attitude that needed to be fixed.

Still, it's hard for a team - and a town - to adopt a winning attitude when it's going 1-9.

"We had to change the attitude, not only in the school, but in the community," Walker said. "But that's a catch-22. You can't change the attitude until you win, and you can't win until the attitude changes."

Walker said he saw the attitude change in the middle of the 1998 season when the Bulldogs won a 19-14 game on their home field against Hedgesville, which was fresh off a trip to the state semifinals.

"We were 2-2 and didn't know how to win," Walker said. "They went out there and won a close game over a pretty good team and things have gotten better each year since."

The Bulldogs made the playoffs for the first time in five years that season and they haven't missed the postseason since.

The attitude has changed in Martinsburg, just as it did at East Hardy a decade ago. Even though there are no more pep rallies, they're not booing the Bulldogs any longer.

"It was a good challenge, and I knew it would be a challenge," Walker said. "I knew the formula would work, because it worked at East Hardy. I enjoyed that part of it and that was part of what drew me to Martinsburg."

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