By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Season one is over.
Since early August when practice began, the Bluefield College football team has been focused on trying to win games in what is the school’s first season on the gridiron since 1941.
With Bluefield’s 23-14 loss to Campbellsville on Saturday, it’s time to start preparing for next season. The Rams were 0-11 on the campaign.
“You get into that mode of just going week to week and then all of a sudden you realize it is over,” Bluefield College head coach Mike Gravier said. “It takes awhile to get your bearings and kind of change directions into recruiting.”
While the actual games will end, the work for next season is just beginning. There are building blocks, with the Rams able to find plenty of talent among the nearly 80 players that comprised the Bluefield roster in their first season in the rugged Mid-South Conference.
“I think as coaches what gives us a sense of excitement is we still feel like we have some pretty good players on our team and as they develop and as they get stronger and they grow, they are going to be pretty impactful in this conference,” Gravier said. “We don’t see that big of a difference between winning and losing in this conference as our scores have shown.”
The players will not be on the football field in the week ahead, but will take part in what amounts to a ‘job’ interview with the Bluefield coaching staff.
“Next week we do what we call exit interviews. We meet with each player and do an evaluation with them and they evaluate themselves and just make sure we are all on the same page,” Gravier said. “We give them a week or two to give their bodies time to recover from the season and then we will start lifting.
“We will get them a lifting program going before Christmas and then obviously as coaches we will start getting into recruiting.”
Part of the reason for the interviews is to help the Bluefield coaching staff determine its needs for the upcoming season.
“We are going to have some academic casualties probably or some guys that will realize that Bluefield or this program is not for them,” Gravier said. “That is part of the exit interviews so we can get an idea of what we need to replace.
“Our quota for the school is 85 and we would like to be up around 95 or better to bring in to the fall camp. Depending on what we lose will determine how many we need to bring in and recruit.”
One positive aspect for a first-year program full of mostly freshmen is that none of the players will be lost because of receiving a diploma.
“We will lose some guys, but we won’t lose anybody from graduation and that is a good thing,” Gravier said.
So is being in the MSC, which has been called the Southeastern Conference of NAIA. Gravier feels like the Rams have faced the same growing pains of joining a new league that has been experienced by West Virginia in the Big 12 or Missouri in the SEC.
While Georgetown is a dominating program — which is apparently moving to NCAA Division II in the near future — Gravier feels the rest of the league is balanced, with a history of lower-level teams beating better schools, much like UVa-Wise stopping West Division leading and nationally ranked Bethel early in the season.
“In this conference there are some good teams and that fluctuates typically from year to year, but there are a lot of teams beating each other...,” Gravier said. “Bethel is going to win the West and UVa-Wise, which has 2 or 3 wins, beat them in the first game of the year so that has happened a lot...
“Other than Georgetown right now, there is not a big gap between top and the bottom...”
Recruiting at the NAIA level is different than the more high-profile schools. There is no national signing day for the Rams, who have had potential recruits in for each home game, but many of those athletes are expecting better offers that may never come.
“We haven’t done a lot because I have found at this level it almost doesn’t make sense to start too early,” Gravier said. “As I told some of the guys last night, ‘All of you guys thought you were Division I guys at this point last year.’”
Oftentimes, Division 1 schools, such as Duke — where Gravier’s daughter is a student-worker with the football team — have the sidelines full of so-called potential recruits, many of whom will never play at that level.
Gravier recently attended Duke’s 33-30 upset of North Carolina, and learned how few of those players were actually up for a scholarship.
“It is kind of funny ... (Duke) had about 100 kids in and she said four of them were kids they were recruiting,” Gravier said. “They were kids that had committed already and were coming to the game and the rest were just local kids they invited.
“Even at that level you are bringing in kids, and they are starting on juniors now and sophomores.”
Programs like Bluefield are often a fallback for athletes who may have had other hopes, but find those dreams dashed.
“We have had a lot of emails and phone calls and that type of thing with kids interested in our program, “ Gravier said. “We have talked to several kids that we recruited last year that either had to get things straight academically and have done that or went to other schools and now are realizing that maybe that isn’t a good fit for them and some of those kids are contacting us as well.
“From that standpoint the recruiting process has started already.”
Unlike the larger schools that send out letters of interest that peaks the interest of potential recruits, Bluefield does much of its preliminary search through an online questionnaire and emails, and also by contacting high school coaches.
“We send a letter out to all the Virginia coaches just inviting their players to any of our home games that they wanted to come to,” Gravier said. “When you have got a smaller budget you have really got to pick and choose where you spend your recruiting dollars.
“For us we feel like it is better face to face, going to the schools, meeting the kids, getting them on campus and those types of things.”
The coaching staff, led by Gravier, defensive coordinator Stacey Hairston and offensive line coach Mike Compton, will be on the road over the next few months searching for players to add to the Rams’ program in anticipation of season number two in the latest version of Bluefield College football.
“We have got to bring in those pieces that are going to make the difference for us and we will do that,” Gravier said. “My coaches will work their butts off and they will work hard to get the right guys here and we will continue to build.”
Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.