MARTINSBURG - David Walker had taken Martinsburg to Wheeling Island four times previously for state championship games.
The Bulldogs fell into the Ohio River each time, however. Their Class AAA championship aspirations for whatever reason had always sunk.
Walker didn't figure there could be a fifth time, not with everything Martinsburg had endured in 2010 - something only Hollywood could script.
Veteran Martinsburg football coach David Walker is being honored as the state’s high school coach of the year by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association. (Photo courtesy of The Martinsburg Journal)
Real life, some of it all too painful, intruded and provided one of those intangibles that no statistic can ever measure.
The Bulldogs were "playing for Kam."
Their journey was not for them alone, but for a fallen comrade, their friend, their quarterback, the young man who single-handedly a year earlier had brought Martinsburg back from a 28-point halftime deficit during a playoff game before a loss to eventual state champion South Charleston - Kam Puller.
A mysterious illness incapacitated Puller, leaving plenty of uncertainty in the Martinsburg camp before the season would even begin.
In the end, the Bulldogs found they could conquer a river that had drowned previous Martinsburg teams, some perhaps more talented, their coach allowed. They handled whatever impediment appeared along the path when they finally defeated Brooke during a dominant 30-0 win in a state title game delayed by a couple of court challenges - just one more dose of reality trespassing on the football field.
Martinsburg finished a perfect season, winning all 14 games.
They dealt with a football season like no other.
The veteran Martinsburg coach kept it all together, and today Walker is being honored as the state's high school coach of the year by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
Walker stands above the water among a pool of exceptional nominees for the honor, including 2010 honoree Wayne Ryan, the Summers County girls basketball coach who has led his team to five straight Class AA championships and is in the midst of a state-record 96-game winning streak; Mike Parrish, the North Marion girls basketball coach whose team won his third straight Class AAA title; Mark Batton, the Magnolia football coach whose undefeated team won the state Class AA championship; Fred Ferri, the Oak Hill boys basketball coach who won a second straight Class AA crown; and John Bonecutter, the Point Pleasant wrestling coach whose team repeated as the state Class AA/A champion.
He will be honored at the Victory Awards Dinner on May 1 in Clarksburg.
"I'm very honored," Walker said. "I know there's a lot of great coaches throughout the state, and a lot of guys had great years.
"To be selected is very special."
None of the others had to endure what Walker did, however.
"If you look at the season we had, it was very unique," Walker said. "We went into the season not having Kam, and the way the kids rallied around him. ...
"Plus, if you fast-forward to the court issues, and our kids being at a disadvantage for the state championship game, the kids overcame that adversity.
"This was kind of a surreal year."
Beyond surreal, it was historic for the Bulldogs. Martinsburg had never won a state football championship.
"For us to win a state championship was phenomenal," Walker said. "I was very proud to be a part of it, and doing it with those guys. ..."
Sometimes, there is no way to put it into words. The intangibles, you know? The life-altering circumstances. No other team in West Virginia can find such a parallel to their title run.
The Puller situation is paramount, of course. He's still struggling with the mystery illness. It was such a rallying point that the team captains, demonstrating their love for their teammate, carried the once-extremely athletically gifted Puller's No. 12 jersey to every coin toss.
With the championship secured late in the championship game, Walker, his eyes watering, grabbed Puller's jersey and held it up, the final symbolic touch on Martinsburg's perfect season.
Beyond the Puller situation, there was the court battle between two potential opponents, Brooke and South Charleston, to add to the screen writers' delight. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals eventually resolved the squabble in the Bruins' favor.
The delay, pushing the championship game a week later than it was originally scheduled, left Martinsburg in a quandary as the Bulldogs tried to decide for which team to prepare. The Bulldogs were left trying to figure how the justices' gavels might fall, though it might not have mattered anyway.
Given what they had been through, the stall was a minor inconvenience.
An extra week of practice was nice. An additional week of being together as friends and teammates meant even more.
The Bulldogs defined it as their destiny.
Martinsburg played the state championship with quarterback Brandon Ashenfelter, who had operated under center for only one game on the junior varsity team a season before, playing on a broken foot - though nobody knew it at the time. The Bulldogs' featured running back, David Gladden, wobbled with knee and ankle injuries and had to leave the title game injured. But the Martinsburg defense did what it did all year.
"They played very well in the state championship game, especially defensively. They played very well, and they were ready."
Defense proved to be Martinsburg's calling card throughout the season. Martinsburg allowed a mere 7.7 points per game defensively during the season, though many of those points allowed came when Walker summoned his reserves, and only 17 points total during four postseason contests. Along the way, Martinsburg held Briar Woods, a Virginia state champion that topped 40 points in its title tilt, to just seven points, those coming as a result of a punt-team snap malfunction.
Still, Walker couldn't shake some of those previous state championship game experiences.
Those teams included wide receiver Brandon Barrett, a two-time Kennedy Award winner as the state's top prep player and a Parade All-American, and Nate Sowers, a Kennedy Award winner, yet the failed to rise above the swallowing waters.
"I don't know if I could've gone through another loss - especially with what our team had been through," Walker said. "People say you win it when you least expect it. I wasn't expecting it when we lost Kam. The ball rolled the right way for us sometimes."
Beyond the triumphs, Puller's mystery disease proved revealing to Walker, who encounters student issues on a daily basis in his school position as vice principal of discipline.
"This year restored my faith in kids," Walker said. "In the past, we probably had more talented groups, but these kids rallied together and really cared about each other. They matured from seeing what Kam went through.
"The great thing about the season was seeing how the kids matured, responded and were able to restore my faith in what's good about sports and kids."
Walker is the second Martinsburg coach to receive prestigious honor from the West Virginia Sports Writers Association. Dave Rogers won the award after his Bulldogs won the state Class AAA basketball championship in 1994 by defeating the Randy Moss and Jason Williams-led DuPont squad.
Walker credited his players and staff for his ability to win the award.
"It's a team thing, a staff thing," Walker said. "I'm very lucky to have some of the guys I have."
It helped in enabling the Bulldogs to more than keep their heads above water. Rather, Walker and Martinsburg pretty much walked on it.