By Ryan Decker, Originally written for West Virginia Sports: Morgantown and Beyond
Martinsburg High School’s football program wasn’t always this good.
In the years prior to the arrival of current head coach David Walker, the Bulldogs were struggling.
Now, two decades and four championships later, and Walker is still the head coach of Martinsburg High School’s football team, and although both he and the program have come a long way since his arrival, the one thing that has stayed consistent is the way the job gets done.
“X’s and O’s we’re a lot different now,” Walker said. “But as far as the values and the hard work and the commitment, I’ve not changed a whole lot. A lot of the guys tell me I’ve gotten mellow and I’ve softened up. We still preach the hard work and the commitment, and a lot of the core values that we’ve always preached and talked about over the years.”
Walker first controlled the sidelines at MHS, which plays its home games at Coburn Field in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1997.
In Walker’s first year at the helm, the Bulldogs were 1-9, by far his least successful season.
The following year Martinsburg went 6-4 in the regular season and made the playoffs.
MHS hasn’t missed out on the postseason since.
“That comes with playing Martinsburg football,” Justin Arndt, a former Bulldog running back now starting linebacker for the West Virginia Mountaineers said. “Playoffs was never a thing to worry about. It was always worrying about getting to the state championship and winning a state championship. That was always the thing in the back of our heads and the one thing we wanted to accomplish.”
Including last year, the Bulldogs have been included in the West Virginia Class AAA football playoff bracket each of the last 18 years. For reference, that’s longer than all but three active NCAA bowl appearance streaks.
Over that time, Martinsburg has appeared in eight state championship games, including winning four in a row from 2010-2013, a feat that had not previously been done at the AAA level in West Virginia history.
“Obviously winning the first one was special, especially since we’d been there four years and were runner up,” said Walker. “Each one of them had their own unique talent, and had their own personality. All four of them were special teams and brought something special to the table.”
Asked if any of those teams had an edge over the others, Walker admitted it’s too hard to pick, saying, “There were all four pretty good.”
The second championship team, the 2011 state title group, holds a special place in Arndt’s heart.
“Especially my last (championship) – the second one – it was probably one of the best days of my life. Going off, finishing high school football the way I did with an MVP and the state title, winning 28 straight. It’s something I can look back on now and down the road as I get old and can’t play football anymore.”
Walker’s success as a head coach started prior to his days at Martinsburg. Like he would do almost a decade later at MHS school, Walker took a recently struggling team to the playoffs in his second year as head coach at East Hardy High School, which was less than a decade into its existence when we took over.
Beginning in 1988, he helped turn a young, struggling Cougar football program into a winner, making the playoffs seven consecutive years during one stretch.
He finished his nine-year tenure as the Cougars signal caller with a record of 56-41 before being hired to have the same effect at Martinsburg, a school currently led administratively by principal Trent Sherman who was once Walker’s starting quarterback at East Hardy.
His former players sticking close to his side after their playing days doesn’t stop at Sherman, either, some of his current coaches being former Bulldog players.
“The 1998 team was definitely one of my favorite, if not my favorite, teams. It was the first year that we’d won, and we have a couple of guys off that team that coach with me. They helped lay the foundation for all the success that we have. I know a lot of people probably think it would be one of the championship teams. That ’98 team was a great group of guys that really worked hard and helped us lay the foundation for all the success that we’ve had in the years since.”
The foundation was there from the start, but the process on the rest continued to be built successful season after successful season.
Four of those ended with the Bulldogs coming out on the wrong side of the final scores at state championship games in 2001, ’03, ’04 and ’06. Despite the 0-4 start in title games for Walker and company, you could say they were just getting started.
“I guess by process of elimination you think at some point they were going to win the state championship because they had been there four times previously,” said Rick Kozlowski, Sports Editor at The Journal in Martinsburg. “In a lot of ways, I think they were still building during those periods. Not to say that those teams weren’t good. I think the program was still being developed.”
During Martinsburg’s run to four-consecutive state championships, and even when the Bulldogs were defeated in the semi-final round of the playoffs in 2014 ending the quest for five-straight championships among other streaks, the words ‘Dog Dynasty’ was the name for it.
But ‘Dog Dynasty’ doesn’t just cover the successful championship runs, it covers everything that had come before it from the first day the team that laid the foundation for success at MHS took the field in 1998.
“That’s one thing that every kid now that’s their goal,” said Arndt. “It’s not a successful season if you don’t win the title. That’s one thing that’s clear and evident to the program. That’s the bar that’s set and that’s what everyone wants to accomplish.”
During the 2012 campaign, shirts were made highlighting the accomplishments of the Bulldogs program. The back of the shirt read:
15 years. 162 victories. 15 playoff appearances. 9 conference championships. 8 semi-final appearances. 7 state championship appearances. 3 state championships. 102 WV All-State players. 8 All-State Captains. 4 All-Americans. 3 Kennedy Award Winners. 3. Gatorade State Players of the Year. 2 Huff Award winners. 2 Hunt Award winners.
Updating that to now includes 204 victories, 18 playoff appearances, 12 conference championships, eight state championship appearances, and four state titles over 19 years.
That’s an average of nearly 11 wins per season.
Consistency like that is hard to come by.
Walker said changing the football culture at Martinsburg was hard to do. Now, though, the players that play for him expect nothing less than success.
“I think the expectations are high here, but I think the kids enjoy that,” said Walker “I know our kids now, a lot of them have told me that they used to come to games when they were young. And of course, a lot of the kids that were playing for me now weren’t even born when I first got here. A lot of these kids have grown up watching Martinsburg football.”
Martinsburg is continuing its success in 2016. The Bulldogs are off to an 8-0 start with two games remaining in the regular season, both of which they will be considered the heavy favorites in.
They will then turn their attention, once again, towards the state title game in Wheeling on Dec. 3. Martinsburg, led on offense by Tyson Bagent and on defense by Tavis Lee.
This may be one of Walker’s better team. Noting that there is still worked to be done, Kozlowski voiced that opinion, adding the reason being this team has returned the most starters of any of the teams that won the state title.
Martinsburg is good, really good. The Bulldogs have been for a while, and it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon.
Listen to the full interview with Walker by clicking on the link below.
For more stories about sports in West Virginia check out West Virginia Sports: Morgantown and Beyond starting this week.