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Though Baker values retention, West Virginia’s new AD identifies plan for portal

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Monday’s opening of the NCAA Transfer Portal for a 45-day window is sure to captivate college football fans across the country for much of December and January.

Roster turnover has never been more prevalent in college athletics. Though circumstances are different everywhere, each program is dealing with attrition to some extent, regardless of its level of success and the status of its coaches.

On Monday, as West Virginia introduced the school’s 13th Director of Athletics, Wren Baker detailed his approach on the transfer portal and the importance of keeping WVU athletes in Morgantown.

“It starts with making sure that the student athletes who are here are having a great experience,” Baker said. “In any form of talent acquisition, retention is critical. We want our student-athletes in our program now to have a great experience and to feel like they are being prepared for more than just athletics and to get a degree. We’re preparing them for life and preparing them to be valuable members of community.”

Still, attrition is inevitable in today’s era and Baker understands that. In the first 24 hours of Baker being welcomed into his new position after leaving behind North Texas, two of West Virginia’s four scholarship quarterbacks — JT Daniels and Will “Goose” Crowder — have entered the portal. Several others, including experienced wideout Reese Smith, have done the same. More will follow suit in the near future.

West Virginia’s football program has seen an abundance of turnover for much of coach Neal Brown’s tenure and based on early indications, it appears likely that’ll again be the case this offseason. 

On the other side, the Mountaineers figure to be active in their pursuit of additions through the portal. 

While Baker won’t be directly responsible for losses or gains, he wants to be aware of who’s coming and going and put Mountaineer coaches in position to be successful by using the portal to their benefit. 

“We have to provide all the access to all the technology in the world to see who’s going in,” Baker said. “A few years ago, it was all manual. Now, you can go in the morning if you pay for the service, and they tell you who’s coming in and who’s going out. Some of the services will even tell you grades and some commentary from coaches, so you have to know who’s there. 

“You have to make sure that your coaching staffs across the board are equipped with the people who can reach out to student athletes in the portal and help build the case — in terms of the frequency of communication and selling what we have to offer, selling the institution and the athletic program that we’re providing. All of those things to make a case for WVU.”

A different time, but also reality of today’s climate in college athletics.

“It’s certainly a different world and I spend more time on it then I thought I ever would,” Baker said. “This job has evolved a lot during my 20 years. Somebody said earlier that I’m young [Baker is 44]. I don’t feel young after all the evolutions that this job takes sometimes, but we’re in one of those paradigm-shifting evolutions and we have to be prepared to make those adjustments.”

Part of adding transfers or retaining players can boil down to opportunities players have to profit from Name, Image and Likeness (NIL).

Baker believes those are imperative and must be presented to athletes in an effort to not only retain their services, but provide them with the ‘great experience.’

“At this point, we’re not able to determine who gets money or convey a certain amount or anything like that, but we can promote it,” Baker said. “That’s the right place for us to be. Really, NIL, is about opportunities for student-athletes and that’s what we’re for is to provide them opportunities. Opportunities to get degrees, opportunities to excel and grow personally and professionally as well as athletically. It’s important that we embrace that and promote that. I don’t think it has to come at the expense of other things that we’re trying to do. In the environment we’re in today, that’s a very important component to a healthy athletic program.”

After Baker accepted the job at West Virginia last Wednesday, but before he’d ever been in Morgantown, he promoted Country Roads Trust, a prominent West Virginia alumni backed organization designed to facilitate NIL opportunities for Mountaineer student-athletes.

The group was launched by several prominent WVU alumni, including the school’s 11th athletic director in Oliver Luck and Arizona Diamondbacks owner/managing general partner Ken Kendrick.

“I’ve known Oliver for a long time. We haven’t spent a lot of time together, but he’s somebody in the industry that certainly has a name and reputation and that I’ve connected with over time,” Baker said. “I had a chance to talk to the rest of the staff there at Country Roads Trust. I see them as an asset and a tool and somebody we need to have a relationship with — not one that violates the rules, but one that is healthy and does everything it can to provide those opportunities for student-athletes within the rules.”

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Senate Republican mega-majority discusses priorities, and minority trio pick a leader

Senate President Craig Blair, who now leads a Republican majority with 31 of the chamber’s 34 members, indicated legislative priorities will include tax policy, shoring up insurance for public employees, bolstering public education and diving into issues surrounding the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Mike Woelfel

Meanwhile, the Senate’s Democratic minority, with three members, selected a new leader: Mike Woelfel of Cabell County.

Woelfel’s position as minority leader was announced today. Woelfel, who has served in the Senate since 2014. He succeeds the prior minority leader, Stephen Baldwin, who was defeated in the most recent General Election. “I am grateful and humble to selected by my peers for this key position,” Woelfel stated in an announcement.

The minority whip will be Senator Bob Plymale of Wayne County. Those two will have to ask the third Democrat, Mike Caputo of Marion County, what he thinks about issues.

“Our caucus will remain laser focused on economic development, public education, infrastructure and constituent services,” Woelfel said in today’s announcement. “Every day we will continue to work across the aisle to move West Virginia forward.”

The Senate now has 31 Republicans out of the 34 members after the election and then the switch of Senator Glenn Jeffries from Democrat to Republican. That’s way up from the prior 23-Republican majority.

The Senate’s Republicans gathered last weekend to discuss policy priorities and to put forth their nominee for president of the chamber. The Senate President will be officially chosen by the full body once the regular session begins.

But there is little doubt: It’s Blair.

Senator Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, in late August had announced a challenge for the president’s role. But last month, Rucker said that although frustrations continue over some key issues, she would withdraw. 

Craig Blair

“We’ve got a whole package of things that we want to do and what we want to work on,” Blair said today on “Talkline.”

Public education will be a “huge priority,” Blair said. “We’ve done just about everything we can for charter schools, home schools, microschools, alternative education in the state of West Virginia. It’s time to take a deep dive into public education.”

The Public Employees Insurance Agency needs attention after a five-year outlook anticipated state costs will skyrocket by hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2018, rising insurance premiums and flat pay prompted a statewide teachers strike. A PEIA Task Force formed in response to concerns, but the governor wound up stepping in to establish a reserve fund of more than $100 million to hedge against rising insurance costs.

Since then, Blair said, “the governor, the executive, has not done anything. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite, he’s said he doesn’t want to do anything until he leaves office. I guess you can say we’ve been complicit with that as well, but I’m telling you we’re doing work trying to prepare to be able to manage PEIA.”

On taxes, Blair said, “I believe there will be a tax cut plan. That one has some coordination that needs to be done with the House of Delegates and the Governor’s Office.”

There was clear strain between Gov. Jim Justice and Senate leaders over a constitutional amendment issue that could have led to personal property tax cuts. But Blair said he believes the two can work together on tax issues.

“I’m willing to work with the governor, and I believe we’re willing to work with the governor to move West Virginia forward,” Blair said. “If that’s not the case, it’s probably going to be a decision made by the executive.”

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Teen’s girlfriend told him to “hurry up and get it over with” before killing 4 family members on video chat

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Kanawha County teen, who is on trial this week for murdering his four family members two years ago, was on a video call with his then-girlfriend during the killings, according to testimony revealed in court Tuesday.

Gavin Smith (WVRJA)

“I was on the video chat with him,” Rebecca Walker, 19, told Kanawha County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Don Morris. “I was texting it to him on the video chat. I told him to hurry up and do it.”

Walker, in a bright orange jumpsuit, described the moments she “protected” Gavin Smith, 18, from getting caught by the police after he murdered his mother Risa Mae Saunders, 39, his stepfather Daniel Dale Long, 37, and his brothers Gage Ripley, 12, and Jameson Long, 3, in their Cemetery Road home near Elkview on Dec. 9, 2020.

Smith, who was 16 at the time of the killings, hid in the woods and then at Walker’s grandmother’s home until police arrested him a few days later. He was charged with four counts of first degree murder.

Walker is currently serving a 10 year prison sentence after pleading guilty to being an accessory after the fact of first degree murder.

“Did you see the gun on the camera?” Kanawha County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Don Morris asked Walker.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Who had the gun in their hand?” Morris continued.

“Gavin did,” Walker responded.

“Did he also have a knife?” Morris asked.

“Yes,” Walker said. “He was planning to kill his mom and his step dad.”

Walker testified she wasn’t able to see what Smith did “because his screen was pitch black,” but she did hear Smith’s 3 year old brother crying in the background.

Walker said Smith’s parents did not want them seeing her or calling her and that she couldn’t understand why.

“I know that he wasn’t allowed to talk to me. He wanted to be around me and spend time with me, but his parents didn’t want that to happen,” she said.

Defense attorney John Sullivan previously said during Monday’s opening statements evidence showed Smith’s parents put padlocks on a door inside the house and on the refrigerator.

Walker told Sullivan during cross examination Smith killed his family because he was “angry” that he wasn’t allowed to spend time with her.

Kanawha County detectives exit a house near Elkview on Dec. 13, 2020, where 4 people were killed including 2 children. (Photo/MetroNews)

“Did you want him to shoot his family?” Sullivan asked Walker.

“Unfortunately, yes I did,” she replied.

“Why did you want him to do that?” Sullivan asked.

“Because I felt like if he did it, it would give me and him the opportunity to be together,” Walker said.

During re-cross examination, Walker told Morris she didn’t tell the truth when police asked her what happened.

“I wanted to protect Gavin,” she said.

“So, you lied?” Morris asked.

“Yes, I did lie.”

Walker went on to say she tried to seek counseling for Smith before the killings “so he could talk to someone about what was going on at home.”

“I was trying to be there for him,” she said. “I was trying to do what I felt like I needed to do to make sure he had somebody. It made me angry that they (Smith’s parents) felt the way they did about me because I didn’t think I had done anything wrong.”

Smith and Walker had met a few weeks before the COVID-19 lock down in Spring 2020, yet court documents showed the couple exchanged over 15,000 pages Facebook messages.

Detective Jared Payne with the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office testified Tuesday about the messages between Smith and Walker from Dec. 5-10, 2020.

“Ok baby, I’m a murderer,” one message from Smith said.

“I killed Jameson. I’m crying,” another message from Smith read.

Detectives said five fired shell casings were recovered from the scene.

The jury on Tuesday was also shown graphic photos of the victims’ dead bodies inside the home.

The trial is before Kanawha County Circuit Judge Kenneth Ballard and is scheduled to resume Wednesday morning.

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Fight at Keyser High sends one to the hospital

KEYSER, W.Va.— Mineral County Superintendent Troy Ravencroft confirms a fight last week at Keyser High School sent a student to the hospital.

“My school security officer is investigating the incident and we continue to look at what happened,” Ravencroft told MetroNews.

The fight broke out in a school bathroom near the end of the school day. Ravencroft would not indicate if any disciplinary action had been taken against either boy. He also wouldn’t’ elaborate on what prompted the fight.

“We’re still working on the investigation and trying to get to the root of the situation. I have no idea what caused the fight at this point, but in high schools we have fights. I hesitate to say it, but we’ve actually been pretty lucky and haven’t had all that many lately,” he said.

The extent of the fight victim’s injuries was not known, but according to Ravencroft the boy was treated and released from the local hospital.

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Fire damages Pilgrim’s Pride facility in Hardy County

MOOREFIELD, W.Va. — A spectacular fire at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Moorefield was contained to the facility’s boiler room and was quickly brought under control by the Moorefield Fire Department early Tuesday morning.

Fire departments from Hardy, Grant, and Hampshire County responded to the fire at the facility around 1:15 a.m.

“When I came through town there was heavy smoke and flames coming from the back side of the plant. They have what they call a thermal fluid boiler room. It’s a room where they heat oil that goes into their fryers. That room was actually on fire,” said Moorefield Fire Chief Doug Mongold.

The boiler room is in the bottom of a tower-like structure which is more than two stories high.  Fire was observed at the base and shooting out the roof of the narrow structure.

“It was fully involved and coming out the roof. That’s probably a two story building with tanks sitting up high. There was also a four-inch gas line that broke inside the building. We had a lot of flames there for a while,” Mongold said.

Although the oil was flammable, it was a low rating for fire. Mongold said once they were able to cut off the gas supply, the fire was quickly under control and confined to the boiler structure . The flames did not extend into the processing facility.

Pilgrim’s Pride officials have not indicated the extent of damage or if any part of the plant is closed due to the fire. A cause for the blaze is under investigation. Nobody was injured. Firefighters were able to clear the scene in just over two hours.

“It was really a good outcome for as bad as it could have been,” Mongold said.

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Report: JT Daniels to re-enter NCAA Transfer Portal

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — ESPN’s Pete Thamel is reporting that WVU quarterback JT Daniels will enter the NCAA Transfer Portal for a third time. After starting his college career at USC and then transferring to Georgia before arriving in Morgantown, Daniels will once again seek a new home.

Daniels earned the starting spot for the Mountaineers prior to the season opener at Pittsburgh. He started ten games for WVU before being replaced by redshirt sophomore Garrett Greene. Daniels passed for 2,107 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Seven of his nine interceptions came in his final five games.

Daniels will join fellow quarterback Will Crowder in the transfer portal. Crowder announced his decision to depart on Monday after two years in the Mountaineer program. Greene and freshman Nicco Marchiol are the two remaining scholarship quarterbacks on the WVU roster.

Former Tyler Consolidated High School running back Markquan Rucker also announced his decision to enter the transfer portal on Tuesday.

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As feds investigate state-run facilities, advocate tells lawmakers of ‘vicious cycle of institutionalization’

A federal agency is investigating how West Virginia treats its intellectually disabled population, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Resources says the agency is cooperating, and lawmakers today heard concerns about the state’s institutionalization practices.

West Virginia’s DHHR secretary this week confirmed the agency is cooperating with a federal investigation of discrimination allegations at state-run facilities for disabled people.

Bill Crouch

“We don’t want anyone discriminated against, and we will not tolerate that,” DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said during a Monday briefing about a variety of state topics.

Lawmakers heard about conditions at state-run facilities today during an interim meeting of the Joint Committee on Health, with the main presenter describing “a vicious cycle of institutionalization.”

“I know the temperature’s high with DHHR, and I want to make it clear right now we’re not here as an adversary of DHHR,” Mike Folio, legal director of Disability Rights West Virginia. “We’re here as an ally of disabled people who have no voice, whose voice has been silenced, who are locked up in institutions.”

He went on to describe unnecessary institutionalization, abuse, fear of retaliation among those who speak out, lack of transparency and enormous costs at state-run facilities. There was so much of concern that Health Committee Chairman Matthew Rohrbach said lawmakers would likely need to revisit the issue.

Crouch, who was not a scheduled presenter before the legislative interim committee, went to the podium late in the meeting to rebut Folio’s comments. He asked how the Disability Rights West Virginia position could be considered non-adversarial. “That was an attack on DHHR,” he said.

“When we have issues, they’re investigated. There are no secrets here. It’s not perfect, but we’re taking care of folks,” Crouch told lawmakers.

He reiterated the agency’s intent to cooperate with a federal investigation and then added that he thinks Disability Rights West Virginia should be investigated too.

“We’re trying to keep folks in a psychiatric facility? It’s nonsense,” Crouch said.

The civil rights office for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified the state of the investigation in mid-November, responding to a complaint that the state agency is “engaging in unlawful discrimination based on disability.”

The original complaint was filed by Disability Rights of West Virginia, which contends that DHHR fails to administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to meet the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.

As a result, Disability Rights of West Virginia alleges that some people who are eligible for services under the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Waiver did not receive services needed to avoid the risk of institutionalization and are now needlessly segregated in state-operated hospitals.

“The state has broken its promise with IDD patients,” Folio told lawmakers today.

The condition of residents at state-run facilities, particularly William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston, has been a longstanding area of concern for legislators.

After a long sigh on MetroNews’ “Talkline” today, Senate President Craig Blair described significant frustration.

“There’s a lot of words flowing around, but there’s very little action taking place,” Blair, R-Berkeley, said on statewide radio.

He added, “There are a multitude of other issues going on over there, and I would call on the governor to get with it.”

Blair signed an Oct. 14 letter to Gov. Jim Justice highlighting reports of illegal physical abuse, neglect and verbal abuse of patients. Blair also expressed concern about a lack of court-ordered transparency at the facility.

“These troubling allegations are part of a long list of problems in the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources management at Sharpe, adding to a trend of abuse suffered by vulnerable West Virginians with traumatic brain injuries and intellectual and/or developmental disabilities,” Blair wrote in the letter.

DHHR responded Nov. 12 with a letter signed by Crouch describing “serious and false allegations.”

During interim legislative meetings last month, Crouch responded to questions by lawmakers by saying “if they have any specific information, anything, any evidence that Sharpe or Bateman or DHHR has done something wrong, is inconsistent with state or federal statute, go straight to CMS and do it now.”

So that’s what happened a day later.

During a briefing with the governor on Monday, Crouch addressed the federal investigation in response to a question by Amelia Knisely of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

“We’ve already said we’re open to the investigation. We’ll provide any information requested with regard to this investigation,” Crouch said.

He added, “I’ve talked for several years now about trying to make sure we have adequate placements for individuals in our psychiatric hospitals. And I’ve said numerous times on this call and in front of the Legislature that no one should live in a psychiatric hospital that doesn’t have to.

“So we’re looking at making sure we can move folks to an appropriate level of care. We do not want folks moved to a psychiatric facility that shouldn’t be there.”

During today’s presentation to legislators, Folio said not wanting people to live in psychiatric hospitals is a laudable goal. But he questioned what’s being done to prevent that.

“I’ve not seen the plan,” Folio said. “I don’t think the plan’s ever been disclosed. It’s never been revealed. I think because there isn’t a plan, and that’s just where we’re at. This is why this vicious cycle of institutionalization just continues to occur.”

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Shepherd heads to Colorado in second consecutive NCAA semifinal appearance

(Story by Luke Wiggs)

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — For the second time in as many years, the Shepherd Rams advanced to the Division II semifinals with a 48-13 win over Indiana University of Pennsylvania on Saturday.

It was a rematch of the PSAC Championship game where IUP held Shepherd to 53 yards rushing and handed the Rams their only loss of the season. The sequel proved much more successful with Shepherd rushing for 141 yards and scoring more points on the Crimson Hawks than any team had all season.

“It was a great win for our program.” Shepherd head coach Ernie McCook said. “To come back to a place three weeks later and beat the No. 1 ranked team in the region that put a really good game plan against us in the PSAC championship game, and to be able to win this football game in the fashion that we did was a real credit to our coaches and players.”

Ronnie Brown had 137 yards rushing in the contest giving him 570 yards on the ground through three playoff games, with five scores, and another 95 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

“They’re scared of Tyson (Bagent) in the pass game, and that opens me up.” Brown said. “And the O-line is blocking tremendously.”

Tyson Bagent, a Harlon Hill Award finalist and Martinsburg High School graduate, threw for four scores in the passing attack, the third of which had extra significance. 

Bagent broke Monmonth’s Alex Tanney’s record of 157 touchdown passes thrown by a college quarterback.

The pass was completed to tight end Brian Walker, who was on the receiving end of pass No. 149 which broke the Division II touchdown record set by Jimmy Terwilliger.

“He’s my best friend in the world,” Bagent said about Walker. “It’s kind of fitting for both records to go to him.”

“One touchdown doesn’t mean more to me than the next,” Walker said. “But to have the opportunity to get that record for Tyson, and give him the recognition he deserves is awesome.”

Now in the semifinals, Shepherd must travel over 1,600 miles and over 5,200 feet in elevation to take on the Colorado School of Mines.

The Orediggers also were participants in last year’s semifinals but began the season in poor form dropping their first two games. They since have won 12 straight including a quarterfinal win over No. 2 Angelo State.

Their quarterback, John Matocha, is having his own “Tyson Bagent-like” season throwing for 4,200 yards and 45 scores this season compared to Bagents 4,415 and 41.

The Orediggers are paced on the outside by Max McLeod and Josh Johnston, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers.

On defense, the Colorado School of Mines leads the nation with 61 sacks and are second with 124 tackles for loss. 

Saturday’s game will kick off at 3:30 EST and can be heard on 95.9 “The Big Dawg” with Jordan Nicewarner, Luke Wiggs, and Parker Stone on the call in Golden, Colorado.

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Student struck while crossing road to board school bus in Berkeley County

INWOOD, W.Va. — A student was struck this morning on Middleway Pike/Rt. 51 just outside Inwood. The incident happened around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Ron Stephens  issued the following statement:

“BCS Community: I want to let you know that a high school student was struck by a vehicle this morning as they crossed the road to board school bus #268. This occurred just outside Inwood on Rt. 51 East. The student was conscious, accompanied by parents, and was transported by ambulance to the hospital for additional evaluation and examination.
The crisis team, and school counselors, has been alerted for students at Musselman High and Middle Schools. Please keep all those involved in this accident in your thoughts and prayers.”

No word on any charges against the driver of the vehicle.

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MetroNews This Morning 12-6-22

Today on MetroNews This Morning:

–Wren Baker is introduced in Morgantown as the new WVU A-D

–A high profile quadruple murder trial will continue today in Charleston

–FEMA rejects funding for four more WV counties which incurred damage from summer floods

–In Sports: the final MetroNews Power Poll is out

Listen to “MetroNews This Morning 12-6-22” on Spreaker.

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