I even know of the “Dog Dynasty” although I live more than 200 miles away and in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. I’m something of a “sports guy,” though, and Martinsburg High has dominated the Class AAA conversation for nearly 20 years, and the state’s Super Six Football Championships have been staged at Wheeling Island Stadium since 1994.
And I know about Dave Walker, too, and that’s because the Bulldogs have appeared in eight state title game under his watch, winning four in a row in 2010, and 2011, and 2012, and once again in 2013. The state-record streak stopped at four when Capital High crushed South Charleston, 55-15, in December 2014, and then Wheeling Park High claimed that high school’s first-ever Triple-A with a 23-15 victory over Capital nearly 10 months ago.
But something about this head coach has me believing he’s not finished collecting shiny, handsome hardware. His Bulldogs are 3-0 following a 35-28 win over Shersando, Va., a 56-14 victory in Week 2 against Eastern High from the Washington, D.C., area, and a third consecutive victory with a 60-0 decision against Princeton, W.Va.
So I Google, “M-A-R-T-I-N-S-B-U-R-G F-O-O-T-B-A-L-L,” and I discovered the 32-game streak that was snapped by Westminster High in Maryland; I learned about former Bulldogs like Brandon Ashenfelter, Cedric Brown, David Gladden, Deamonte Lindsay, Logan Jenkins, and Josh Harwood; and I also saw a blog that quoted one player explaining how Walker knows how to place a player in the best possible position to be great.
So, yeah, I then Googled the guy — D-A-V-E W-A-L-K-E-R — and I watched the videos, and I read the pages of website articles and blogs, and I heard him talk football, and I read about how he mentors his players and how he often reminds these young men that these days are their best days as competitive athletes with glory to capture and glory to lose.
So then I called the head coach and athletics director, who is a native of Pineville, a small community in southern West Virginia that serves as the county seat in Wyoming County despite the fact the 2010 U.S. Census accounted for just 668 residents. That means he was raised in a much different environment than what he’s been surrounded by when accepting the head coaching position in Martinsburg in 1997.
He was out of the woods, surrounded by more concrete than ever before, and now he’s become “Mr. Football” of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle although he has no idea what Tinseltown football flick best represents the Bulldogs’ program, and he’s not a coach who scouts the county’s public schools as a feeder system.
“We do have a lot of young kids that come to our games, and I’m sure they dream of being a Bulldog one day. We’ve always had players who have told us that that’s what they wanted to do when they were little,” Walker said. “But I’m not the kind of coach that goes to watch the fourth or fifth graders play to see what we might have coming to the high school.
“I know some people do that, and maybe I should, but all I have done the past 20 seasons is coach the kids we have and go from there,” he continued. “I know kids do change, and maybe their dreams change about playing football here in Martinsburg, so that’s why we go about it the way we do.”
Tied for No. 1
In Wheeling, high school football fans grew used to Martinsburg winning the Class AAA state title, but when the Bulldogs failed to advance to the Super Six Football Championships in 2014 last December, it just seemed odd.
Each of the past two years, though, it has been Capital High that has derailed Martinsburg’s quest to add titles to the ongoing tale about this dynasty.
“I don’t feel any pressure. We’re just going about our business and do what we do. We just go out and try to get better every day,” Walker said. “We coach our kids, take care of the little things, and go from there. We don’t really talk about championships here at Martinsburg.
“I mean we really don’t talk about winning or losing, but we do talk about getting better and how we can do that each day and each week of the season,” he said. “We concentrate on becoming better football players and better people. That’s what we do here, and it works for us. It might not work for everybody, but it does here. Our kids buy into what we are doing here. Once the kids buy into what you’re doing, your chance for success becomes a lot better.”
When it comes to Triple-A high school football in West Virginia, there are several of the same teams annually in the, “Who could it be?” conversations, and those include Martinsburg, of course, but also Huntington High, University, Morgantown, Capital, and Cabell-Midland. Walker also believes this year’s discussion returns to familiar ground with a few additions like the division’s defending champion Wheeling Park High.
“I think the Triple-A level in West Virginia is wide open. I really do. And we have the same eight to 10 teams that seem to always be in the mix for that state title. I know we have received a lot of accolades early in the year, but I really believe it’s wide open,” he said. “Those accolades at this time of year really don’t mean anything. That just means we’ve looked good on paper.
“There’s Huntington and Capital, Morgantown, Cabell Midland, a lot of the same teams that seem to compete for that title each year, and I believe they will be in the hunt once again this year,” Walker said. “Those are some of the teams I think you have to watch because those programs are usually very good and in the hunt in November.”
The Bulldogs are undefeated, tied with Huntington for the top spot in the Class AAA WVSSAC rankings, and the young men have outscored their three opponents 151-42 with cross-town rival Spring Mills coming to Coburn Stadium with a 1-2 record. And although Walker’s roster is chock full of program veterans, he seems to take nothing for granted.
“We have a lot of returning players on this year’s team because we were a very young team last year. We started a lot of sophomores, but now those young men are juniors and much more experienced,” Walker said. “That experience has allowed us to have a pretty good start so far.
“We have some very talented players on the team. If you look at the offense, our quarterback, Tyson Bagent, threw for over 2,100 yards as a sophomore, and he’s off to a good start this year. He’s thrown for more than 500 yards and nine touchdown passes so far,” the coach continued. “We have our leading receiver back from last year, and that’s Isaac Brown, and he’s having a nice season so far. And we also have last year’s leading rusher, Mikey Jackson, so we have a good bit of the offense back from last year.”
The Bulldog defense is also stoked with experience.
“On the defensive side, Tavis Lee is back at defensive end, and Trey Henry and Josh Goode are both defensive linemen who saw a lot of playing time last year,” Walker said. “So right now we look pretty solid on both sides of the ball with several veteran leaders on the roster.”
Part of Martinsburg High’s football has nothing to do with athletics, Walker insisted during our talk, and one reason is that many of his players wish to use football as a way to pay for their college educations.
“It all starts in the classroom as far as I’m concerned because you have to be academically attractive just to get recruited,” the coach and athletics director reported. “You can have a skill set, but you also need the character because I think right now coaches are looking for players that can take care of it in the classroom and who are not discipline problems.
“That’s what we talked to our kids about social media and about how to conduct themselves. And we also make sure that their academics are in check,” he said. “With the internet and social media, there is no kid that goes unnoticed, and we have had a lot of kids that have gone on to the next level, and they have had the chance to participate. They know that if that’s something they want to do, they will have that opportunity.”
Coach and Teacher
His alma mater no longer exists. Pineville High closed in 1998 to consolidate with Mullens High to form Wyoming East High School. Gone are the maroon and gold colors on jerseys plastered with the “Minutemen,” but Walker used his playing career there to earn a chance to play for Glenville State and acquire his teaching degree.
During his career as a Pioneer, though, his mind changed. The father of two sons, both of whom played for him at Martinsburg, switched from a business concentration to an education major.
“I had a pretty good idea after my third year of college that coaching football was something I could try to do for living because I’ve always liked what sports taught you as far as life and how it relates to life,” Walker said. “I had changed my major a couple of times while in college, and at one time I thought I was going to do the business thing, but that changed.
“But then I decided that coaching and teaching were what would be most satisfying for me,” he added. “My wife, Belinda, is a teacher too, so I’m sure that had some influence because I became pretty familiar with what teaching was all about. I don’t know. I think I just saw a chance to make a difference in a way I knew I could.”
While both of his sons, Derek and Troy, were Bulldogs, only Troy decided to continue his playing career on the college level at Glenville State. Derek entered his senior year at Fairmont State in late August.
Walker says he coached his sons the same way he coaches every single player each and every season since he was hired by Class A East Hardy High in 1988.
“My coaching philosophy is I think you have to adapt to the kids on your team because I can’t make kids do things to fit a certain mold. To me, that’s not how this all works,” he explained. “If you have a kid who can throw the ball, then we we’re probably going to be a pass-heavy team. If we have a stable of backs, the approach is going to be different.
“So we adapt to what we feel like we have, and that’s how we play into our strengths,” Walker continued. “That approach has worked pretty well for us, and we do that on both sides of the ball. It all depends on who we have coming up through the program.”
Winning recruits and winning attracts fans because everyone enjoys being even a small part of winning. It feels good, let’s admit, and winning is always very inclusive whether or not there’s been a history of support. You want on the bandwagon; jump aboard and someone will move over to make room.
That’s fandom, and Walker appreciates the Bulldogs’ community support.
“Our community is very athletically oriented and not only with our football program but also with basketball, baseball, and several other sports, and we’re lucky because we do have a big fan base,” the head coach reported. “We do travel well, too, and we always have a good turnout at our home games, and that, of course, helps our team.
“We have had some success, and that allows the people of this community to be very supportive of what we do,” Walker added. “And we receive that support even if we don’t win the state championship, and I believe that’s because they are aware of how we go about things and because we’ve won those championships in the past.”
(Photos provided by Dave Walker)