Parkersburg native Al Johnson, who returned to the college football strength and conditioning ranks last fall at Northwestern, is headed to Jacksonville later this month for the Wildcats' Gator Bowl matchup on New Year's Day versus SEC foe Mississippi State.
When a big envelope marked Northwestern Football from Johnson showed up on my desk last week, obviously I knew who it was from.
We usually talk or correspond somehow once or twice a year, and I know Al was excited last October when he got the opportunity to ''go back to school'' as the assistant director of sports performance for football at Northwestern under Jay Hooten.
Ironically, Hooten served as Al's assistant when he was in charge of the Ohio State football strength and conditioning program for five years (2001-05), including the Buckeyes' national championship in 2002.
Al was reluctant to leave Parkersburg again since he was in the midst of his duties as the Wood County Middle School athletic coordinator. But he always had a liking for the college atmosphere to ply his trade, as first exemplified by his two stints at WVU as the Mountaineers' strength and conditioning guru, separated by time spent in the same capacity with the Baltimore Orioles during the heyday of Cal Ripken Jr.
Plus, Al thought a lot of Wildcat head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who this season has Northwestern, one of the Big Ten's surprises, at 9-3 going against the 8-4 Bulldogs at noon Jan. 1 on ESPN2.
The 'Cats got off to a quick 5-0 start before falling at Penn State and were nipped 29-28 by Nebraska two weeks later. Their only other loss was at Michigan Nov. 10, as Northwestern recorded notable non-conference victories at Syracuse and over Vanderbilt and Boston College, and posted a 5-3 Big Ten mark.
''We have a good team and hope to be better next year,'' Al wrote in a note he sent along with a program from the Wildcats' final regular-season game Nov. 24 against visiting Illinois, won by Northwestern 50-14.
''OSU had a great season,'' he added, then reminded me that ''we play them (the Buckeyes) the fifth game next season here.''
I'm thinking that just might be a good game to take a drive to Evanston for - and to see Al too, of course.
* Last Saturday night at Parkersburg South, Patriot point guard Taryn McCutcheon and 6-foot-2 post player Anna Hayton became only the third and fourth freshman girls basketball players in school history to open the season in the starting lineup. The previous two were Jill Stephens in 2001 and Keya Bartlett last season.
Bartlett scored 14 points, McCutcheon 11 and Hayton 1, but South bowed to visiting Fort Frye, 48-41,
* Congrats to the Wahama football team and head coach Ed Cromley, a class act, for winning the school's first-ever state football championship also last Saturday night over Madonna in Wheeling.
Give Cromley credit for having the guts to go for a two-point conversion in overtime for the win. It was successful as the White Falcons triumphed 43-42 in the highest-scoring Class A playoff final.