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The Voice of West Virginia

I-79 crash victim identified as Bridgeport man

WHITE HALL, W.Va. — West Virginia State Police have identified the victim of the fiery I-79 crash on the Tygart River Bridge Tuesday evening.

Troopers said Larry Lee Atha, 71, of Bridgeport, died in the crash.

Atha was traveling southbound at about 4:30 p.m. when he hit the guardrail, traveled across both lanes and struck the guardrail again. When the truck hit the guardrail again it caught fire.

Atha was unable to escape and died at the scene, troopers said.

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MetroNews This Morning 8-17-22

A federal judge rejects the plea agreement of a Maryland couple arrested in West Virginia for espionage in the sale of nuclear secrets, they’ll now face trial in U.S. District Court. The cleanup is well underway in Kanawha and Fayette County from high water on Monday morning. We visit with some of those who have a mess on their hands. Also damage assessment from the flooding is underway as well. A major upgrade to a Charleston water treatment plant which provides drinking water to 11 West Virginia counties. Students are back on campus in Morgantown and after a night of enjoying Fall Fest return to class today at WVU. In Sports, Joe Brocato is in for Kyle and we’ll get a preview from perennial football power house Martinsburg and more from the WVU and Marshall training camps as football season is a day closer.

Listen to “MetroNews This Morning 8-17-22” on Spreaker.

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Internal competition helps to keep Martinsburg as West Virginia’s premier program

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — As Martinsburg begins pursuit of their tenth state championship and their sixth in a row for seasons that were completed, the Bulldogs are once again, deep, talented and experienced. Internal competition in practice can be credited for building players and the program.

“A lot of weeks we talk about, we want to be the best team we play that week is on Tuesday and Wednesday against our scout team,” said Martinsburg head coach Britt Sherman.

Britt Sherman claimed his first title as the head coach of the Bulldogs in 2021 and several returning starters can be found throughout their depth chart.

“That was awesome,” said Martinsburg senior linebacker Kam Shallis. “You always dream of that as a little kid. To do it with all these guys out here just made it ten times more special. It was definitely an awesome experience.”

Both starting quarterbacks have returned. Junior Murphy Clement passed for 15 touchdowns and rushed for 22 more. Senior Ezra Bagent tossed 29 touchdowns and he passed for 2,622 yards.

“They both get us the ball,” said Martinsburg senior wide receiver/defensive back Roman Pierson. “Murphy likes to run a lot, obviously. Ezra likes to throw the ball. They are both good throwers.”

“A lot of people don’t understand how the two-quarterback thing works. But when those guys are cheering for each other, it is exciting. It is really good to see,” Sherman said.

Although the Bulldogs lost a trio of Division I players in Hudson Clement, Jacob Barrick and Braxton Todd to graduation, established running backs and receivers return.

“We have [Xavion] Kendall back. We have [Eric] King back. King had a great game last game,” Sherman said. “With the two quarterbacks and with our receivers, we’ve got Buzz Dover back. He was out all last year with a knee injury. Pierson, [Kashez] Gedeon, [Sirod] Musgrove, Jameer Hunter joins us this year.”

The Bulldog coaching staff must find new starters for interior positions on the line. Leading tackler and future Division I linebacker Kam Shallis returns after making 98 stops as a junior.

“He is the quarterback of our defense,” Sherman said. “He makes sure that everybody is in the right spot. He makes our calls. He flies around and he is real physical.”

In their Super Six victories in 2019 and 2021, special teams were a significant advantage for the Bulldogs and Sherman believes the so-called third phase of the game is emphasized heavily.

“We try to make it a force,” Sherman said. “We really do work on it a lot. Usually, it is at least twenty minutes a day and some days more. We try to simplify it so our athletes can move around as fast as they can and make as many plays as they can on that side of the ball.”

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After hiatus, FallFest met with Mountaineer excitement

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University students were more than ready for this year’s FallFest.

After a two-year pause because of coronavirus-related concerns, the institution held the annual live music event Tuesday at the Evansdale Rec Center athletic fields. Students had formed lines an hour before gates opened.

“It’s definitely exciting. We’ve been waiting for this for a few years now, and it’s finally back,” senior Harley Kautz said.

“You know, it’s been two years,” junior Mae Lynn Sadler told MetroNews affiliate WAJR-AM. “Two years ago, we would’ve never thought of anything like this happening right now, so that’s the plus.”

Hip-hop musician Tay Money, reggae-rock ground Dirty Heads, country singer Dustin Lynch and platinum recording artist Polo G drew crowds to the event. Local food vendors accompanied the live music.

Students greeted the musicians with overwhelming enthusiasm.

“I know for the out-of-state freshmen, they were really excited for FallFest and Welcome Week,” said Abby Feifco, who grew up in Texas and is about to begin her first year of courses. “I know for sure, for me, this is something that I’ve never experienced, and it’s been so fun.”

The first classes of the fall semester begin Wednesday.

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I’m Off!

I’m taking a few days off.  Dave Wilson is filling in.  Meanwhile, how about giving me a grade for the job I’m doing?  A, B, C, D, F, and please explain your evaluation.

Thanks, Hop

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Gupta returns to West Virginia with focus on overdose response efforts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy understands the campaigns in West Virginia addressing drug addiction and overdoses.

Dr. Rahul Gupta presided over the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department for five years before becoming the state’s chief health officer in January 2015. He oversaw multiple initiatives addressing addiction during his three years in the statewide position, in which he focused on utilizing data and identifying risks in formulating response strategies.

Gupta, who became the White House drug czar last November, is in West Virginia this week to meet with local, state and federal officials about the matter and response plans. His first event was a Q&A at the University of Charleston to discuss his role and the perspective from his position in the Biden administration.

“It’s really critical for me to be able to make sure we are doing everything we can right here in the Mountain State because for so long, so many West Virginians have suffered from substance use disorder,” Gupta told MetroNews on Tuesday.

“I think our state can serve as a model example for the nation in how to get things done right, how to save lives, and we just have the perfect recipe here of individuals who look at each other as neighbors, friends, family. Every time this tragedy happens, it’s one of us that gets lost. We understand that.”

Dr. Rahul Gupta (File)

West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the state had 81.4 deaths related to overdoses per 100,000 people in 2020. Kentucky had the second highest rate: 49.2 deaths per 100,000 people. The national average is 28.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

“One of the first things that is important to recognize is this is a crisis that doesn’t care about people’s politics or whether they’re rich or poor, or Black or white, urban or rural. That’s why it is such an important critical issue,” Gupta said. “President Biden has really made it a part of his unity agenda, with the sense of a top priority and an urgent priority.”

The White House released its National Drug Control Strategy in April. The Biden administration has called for expanding access to intervention services and treatment, as well as improving collaboration with law enforcement to better address drug trafficking.

Gupta said a leading problem in treating addiction is the lack of service options. He noted the negative stigma surrounding treatment hinders growth.

“We just don’t have it, and we need to build it,” he said.

“I think one of the first things we do is we meet people where they are, provide them the help, support, and build that trust and engagement. It really begins with understanding why we do not have treatment infrastructure.”

Gupta mentioned increasing access to telehealth and the availability of drugs like naloxone — which can reverse an opioid overdose — as essential steps in reducing overdoses and deaths. He stressed a demand for workers for services related to addiction and mental health.

State governments have access to more than $3 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act for these programs.

“Where you live and your ZIP code should not define whether you get to live or die when you’re going through an overdose,” he added.

Gupta said West Virginia communities have been successful with quick response teams; local bodies establish such groups that are responsible for administering care during situations involving drug misuse and contacting individuals with opportunities for treatment. Gupta will spend part of his visit taking part in a ride-along with such a unit.

“I think it’s important that no matter who you are or where you are, you have the ability to access treatment. We want to make sure anyone who goes through an overdose has the ability to get treatment,” he said. “To me, an overdose is a cry for help. I believe we need to make sure it’s treated like one.”

While Gupta is familiar with West Virginia, he believes there are new approaches and ideas he can learn and propose when he returns to the nation’s capital.

“It’s very critical for me to be able to understand, importantly, what’s working, but even more importantly, what’s not working so we can stop doing that and do more with what’s working in order to bring true solutions that impact people on the ground in a real way,” he said.

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., joined Senate colleagues on a letter to Gupta this week requesting more counties receive designation as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. The senators contend there are deficiencies in selecting counties, noting the number of counties in the Appalachia region that do not meet all related criteria.

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Tractor-trailer fire closes section of Interstate 79

WHITE HALL, W.Va. — Multiple Marion County agencies responded Tuesday afternoon to a reported tractor-trailer fire on Interstate 79.

According to authorities, the incident happened near exit 132 and affected southbound traffic. Police closed both lanes and directed traffic onto Pleasant Valley Road.

Officials did not present a time when the interstate will reopen. A medical examiner was called to the scene.

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Damage assessment key in seeking assistance for flood victims

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Kanawha and Fayette counties working with the state have a month to finalize damage assessment numbers from Monday’s flash flood which damaged small communities along creeks that feed into the Kanawha River from Charleston to Gauley Bridge.

State Division of Emergency Management Lead Project Specialist Jason Means said the gathering of the information is important when it comes to getting immediate help and possible federal assistance at a later date.

“We need to make sure that the information is accurate and reliable coming from that area,” Means said Tuesday on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Impacted residents are asked to complete an individual assistance survey.

The governor’s office has fielded a lot of calls from residents who were hit by the flood. Means said residents can call their elected officials but a call to their county Office of Emergency Management may be better.

“Sometimes that amount of time ends up getting wasted in the process. We strongly encourage folks to reach out (to county OEM offices) and go through this process,” Means said.

Kanawha County Office of Emergency Management Director C.W. Sigman said the county had received information from nearly 50 residents by Tuesday evening. He’s expecting that number to grow.

“It’s important to us to get all of the information in, that way we have an accurate picture of what’s going on,” Sigman said. “That way that if it’s possible we’ll get federal assistance.”

Sigman said he doesn’t believe there are many, if any, homes that were destroyed but several were damaged in the flash flood that hit Campbells Creek, Kelley’s Creek and Hughes Creek in his county.

“We do have homes that had water in it and if gets above 18 inches in a home that gets above the electrical service and that makes a big difference on what damages you have,” Sigman said.

He said the highest damage numbers in Kanawha County may be to the highway system. The state Division of Highways is working on those numbers.

Sigman said it’s too early to predict whether the damage in his county will reach the threshold for federal disaster assistance. He said that’s why the assessment numbers are so important.

Meanwhile, Sigman said he’s very pleased with how the county’s emergency alert system worked early Monday morning. He gives a lot of credit to Metro 911 and the National Weather Service.

“They activated the wireless emergency alert which goes to cell phones. We did a reverse 911 and a lot of the apps the news stations had did a really good job,” Sigman said.

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Koonz likes direction of special teams units, which will feature fair share of fresh faces

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia special teams coordinator Jeff Koonz is a firm believer that few, if any, college football programs value special teams as much as the Mountaineers.

“We invest as much time on special teams as anybody in the country and I believe that,” Koonz said. “Our entire team understands that.”

Ahead of his third season in charge of the Mountaineers’ special teams, Koonz is hopeful an extra emphasis on special teams pays off in a big way for the WVU units associated with the third phase of football.

“With special teams as a whole, we made a lot of progress this summer,” Koonz said. “All of our newcomers, whether they be transfers or high school kids, we put them through a crash course through offseason agility and summer work that we did and got them caught up on what we call our Mountaineer techniques — all the techniques associated with special teams that are interchangeable within the units. Really excited about the group we have.”

Kicker Casey Legg returns and has proven to be a reliable weapon for the Mountaineers. Legg was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist last season, when he connected on 19-of-23 field-goal attempts and made all 35 point-after kicks.

Over the last two seasons, Legg is 24-of-30 on field goals. He’s never missed an extra point in 51 tries as a Mountaineer.

Yet Legg’s primary responsibility is scoring and he hasn’t handled kickoffs for much of his college career. Last season, he was responsible for 13 of the team’s 68 kickoffs, while the since-departed Evan Staley kicked off 50 times.

Only 12 of the 68 kickoffs went for touchbacks, with Staley responsible for nine and Kolton McGhee the remaining three on five tries. Those 12 touchbacks were 23 fewer than the next closest Big 12 team, while 29 of 65 kickoffs from WVU’s opponents went for touchbacks.

In an effort to increase that number, the Mountaineers added Florida State transfer Parker Grothaus, who accounted for 89 touchbacks on 167 kickoffs over three seasons as a Seminole.

“Parker has shown why he’s been able to kick at this level in the Power 5 setting, and we’re excited about that,” Koonz said. “It’s going to be a nice addition to our kickoff coverage unit.”

Danny King, listed as both a kicker and punter on the team’s official roster, is also vying for playing time and has gotten reps kicking off.

“Competition brings out the best in everybody and we all know that,” Koonz said. “They’ve embraced that and I’m excited about Danny.“

In addition to Staley finishing his college career in 2021, so, too, did punter Tyler Sumpter.

Sumpter averaged a respectable 43.5 yards per punt in his final campaign and handled all 52 of the Mountaineers’ punts.

That responsibility will now primarily be handled by either McGhee or true freshman Oliver Straw, a native of Melbourne, Australia pushing to be the team’s top punter.

WVU punter Oliver Straw. (Photo by Joe Brocato)

“Ollie Straw and Kolton McGhee have been competing this camp and both have similar skill sets,” Koonz said. “Ollie has done more on the move. but Kolton can do the same movements. They’re going back and forth. Both have shown the ability to really push the field with great hang time. We’ve had more consistent hang time than we’ve had in the past from both of them, so we’re excited about that and looking forward to seeing where the rest of this week takes it.”

The decisions of former WVU wide receivers Winston Wright and Isaiah Esdale to transfer this offseason left a void at punt returner and kick returner, respectively. Esdale was responsible for 13 of the team’s 19 punt returns last season, while Wright handled 23 of 27 kickoff returns.

Wide receiver Sam James factors into the mix at both return spots. Fellow wideout Graseon Malashevich has limited game experience as a return man and Jeremiah Aaron, a wideout WVU added from the junior college ranks, could also factor into the mix.

Koonz made it a point to note that he believes the Mountaineers “will be explosive in their return units” and believes much of it has to do with those responsible for creating running lanes.

“That’s just not a returner comment. We have a lot of guys that we can put back there that we’re excited about, but with what we’ve done on the back end of our kickoff return unit, the continuity with our back line and how they’re setting up on blocks, I feel really confident in them in a multitude of different schemes,” Koonz said. “With our punt return unit and how it’s tying into our punt return phase, I feel like the understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish is the highest it’s been in three years.

“We’re going to be more athletic, even on the front, and more depth with athleticism on the front line helps where those blocks are occurring in space. You have a chance to be really explosive when you can make those blocks in space.”

Regardless of who ultimately handles the bulk of West Virginia’s kickoff and punt returns, Koonz feels the success of both units largely falls on players adhering to the techniques that have been drilled into their heads countless times.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to be a technique unit on special teams,” Koonz said. “I can draw it up in the dirt, but if I can tell a kid, ‘Hey, you have to get to this yard line and use this technique’, he should be able to execute it. We would never do that, but that’s an example. The schematic part of it is really irrelevant if you have everybody working, doing the same techniques and doing exactly what they need to do within it.”

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The ‘mountain has been moved’; development continues at the North Central West Virginia Airport

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — A celebration was held Tuesday at the North Central West Virginia Airport for the completion of Phase I excavation work for the Aerotech Business Park.

The $10.5 million project moved a mountain to level land for the business park, new terminal building and additional aprons to include lighting.

David Hinkle

Current Harrison County commissioner and airport board member David Hinkle, said a few years ago the West Virginia National Guard began moving the estimated three million cubic yards of dirt, but they were redirected by mission requirements.

A couple years passed, then a team from the airport, including Hinkle, went to Charleston looking for support from the governor.

“I can tell we had been to a lot of places and we weren’t sure if we were ever going to accomplish moving this mountain, but the governor saw the potential,” Hinkle said.

Governor Justice announced in August 2019 an allocation of $10 million to support the project from the West Virginia Infrastructure Jobs Development Council and another $10 million in the form of a loan from West Virginia Economic Development Authority. Also, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries reached a deal to bring a regional jet service hub to the airport and build two new hangars for an estimated $20 million shortly after that announcement.

The airport currently employs about 1,500 people and is the home to aircraft maintenance and pilot schools from Pierpont Community and Technical College and Fairmont State University. It also serves a vacation gateway to Washington D.C., Myrtle Beach, Destin-Fort Walton and Orlando for thousand of residents.

“Thousands of employees, tens of thousands of people coming here and the longest runway in the state,” Justice said at Tuesday’s ceremony. “Now you have all this land for development, a new terminal and all the different things going on in this area- you’re on your way.”

Ron Watson

Ron Watson, current airport board member, former airport board president and former Harrison County commissioner said removal of the mountain and addition of flat, developable land is the key to spur more growth. That would be in addition to continued growth for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, he said.

“The aerospace industry is booming and the airport is an economic engine for North Central West Virginia,” Watson said. “It has an economic impact of over $1 billion annually.”

Ernie VanGilder

Current airport board president Ernie VanGilder, said there was a large group of people that have worked for years to position themselves to be a major employer in the area.

“This project marks a $70 million investment to the community with Harrison County, Marion County and the city of Bridgeport and North Central West Virginia Airport contributing $6.6 million in matching funds,” VanGilder said.

Design work for the new terminal building and parking area is complete and will be next major project. But, work and development of business continues on I-279 and nearby the airport that is expected to be ongoing.

Bridgeport mayor Andy Lang said the airport will be a driver of good things in the community for the foreseeable future.

Bridgeport Mayor Andy Lang

“North Central West Virginia is going to benefit from this for many generations,” Lang said. “This will provide transportation needs for our community, this will provide jobs for this community and it will provide them for many years.”

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