It was the morning of Dec. 6 and instead of getting himself psyched up for that evening’s Class AA title game between Bridgeport and Bluefield, Mark Jones was busy doing something else.
Jones was in the lobby of a hotel at The Highlands Plaza near Cabela’s focusing in on his duties as assistant principal and athletic director. And at this particular moment, duties as the athletic director were at the forefront.
“It dated back to that Friday morning. We (the administration) knew the week before what was in store for the upcoming few years, particularly with football, and I was getting started,” said Jones. “I was sitting in lobby drinking coffee, going down the list of schools, and started making calls. That was two seasons ago, but it shaped things for this year.”
Indeed, it did.
What Jones was doing was seeing who was willing to play the Indians in football. The schedule was changing significantly due to finding out not long before the title game that the Tribe was now Class AAA.
Jones went to work. The goal initially was to try and get five home and five road games, and to try and reach at least six ‘AAA’ foes, even though it was not mandatory that first year of transition to qualify for the postseason.
The Indians did not get what they wanted. They ended up with four home games and six road contests on the initial schedule for 2019. They managed five ‘AAA’ opponents. As it turned out, none of that mattered in a COVID season that forced multiple schedule changes no one could have anticipated.
That was schedule number one with the most recent transition to Class AAA. Schedule number two has been finalized, and it has some changes on it.
Bridgeport will have five home games and five road games this coming season. It will also include six Class AAA opponents, as well as a few matchups with traditional Class AA rivals.
What are the changes? Lewis County is off the slate as the season-opening contest that has been in place for the last several years. Buckhannon-Upshur will be in the slot, but the Buccaneers were already a Bridgeport opponent – just in a different date.
The Minutemen have been replaced. The Tribe will travel to face new Class AAA rival Princeton. The game will be played at Hunnicutt Field in Mercer County.
As far as distance, it is the longest trip the Tribe will have. The straight-line distance between the two high schools is nearly 141 miles, but the trip to the school on the Virginia border is a lengthy one – roughly three hours.
For those wondering why Princeton, who will return the trip in 2022, was chosen, Jones said it was simple. It was the only school available to play without beginning a search for out-of-state schools.
“This game was the result of a process that essentially took a year and two weeks. This time around, we actually contacted every school in the state, a few out of state just to gauge interest,” said Jones. “Some of the contacts were our second or third contact to see if any situations had changed.
“Luckily, Princeton matched up with us,” Jones continued. “Even better, it is a home and home deal.”
The good news is that most of the road trips are within reasonable or close driving distance. The Indians furthest road trip outside of Princeton is to Buckhannon-Upshur.
While some of the foes are similar and in different dates on the schedule, there is one new opponent on the roster – but it is a familiar one. Elkins is off the schedule and has been replaced by Harrison County and Big 10 foe Lincoln.
“It was a process to say the least,” said Jones. “We had flexibility with three weeks this year, but other than Princeton there was not a single Class AAA school in the state that was able to adjust their schedule or had an opening to match up; not a single one.”
The main reason Bridgeport was unable to find a foe is the reason other Class AAA schools also have problems at times – conference affiliations.
“Conferences have set number of games they have to play and there may only be one or two openings available. A lot of people talk about playing Parkersburg, but they only have two openings,” said Jones of the Mountain State Athletic Conference team. “One of those games is against Parkersburg South and one is against long-time rival Marietta. They don’t have wiggle room, and that’s the case with a lot of schools.”
Jones said getting the home and home with Princeton with a road trip this year was important for the five-home game rotation to go back into play. He said that is important to the gate and to the fans of the program.
“The five games at home are good for the kids and it’s good for the community that supports the program,” said Jones. “Trying to assure the split to allow those who are following because of family being involved and those who follow because they are fans of the rich tradition of Bridgeport football was important that they have the chance to attend half the games at home.”
Jones is hopeful the schedule will look the same in 2023 as it does now, but for teams outside of the Big 10, that could change once contracts are up and most are on two-year timelines. In case it does change, Jones said the process – although still going to be difficult – will not be as cumbersome.
“With the move to Class AAA and with the schedule changes created by the pandemic, the communication lines between athletic directors across the state are more open than they ever have been, which is a good thing,” said Jones. “It has allowed for networking with ADs and coaches around the state for future scheduling. We hope we don’t have to rely on that networking, but it’s in place.”
That statement let me know that Jones, like any good athletic director, knows there is a chance all this work on the 2021 schedule could be down the drain if the pandemic is still in play and issues once again arise. While he has thought about, he also is not dwelling on it.
“I guess you just have to put it in the back of your mind,” said Jones. “If it happens, it will be dealt with. At this point, we’re just glad to have the schedule in place.”
The schedule is as follows:
August 27 – at Buckhannon-Upshur
Sept. 3 – vs. Morgantown
Sept. 10 – at Liberty
Sept. 17 – vs. Fairmont Senior
Sept. 24 – at Robert C. Byrd
Oct. 1 – vs. Parkersburg South
Oct. 8 – vs. Preston
Oct. 15 – OPEN
Oct. 22 – at Princeton
Oct. 29 – Musselman
Nov. 5 – at Lincoln.