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For WVU's Fla. natives, you can go home again

MORGANTOWN - When Stedman Bailey found out the Orange Bowl was West Virginia's postseason football destination, he literally couldn't control himself.

"When I first heard the news, I was jumping all around the house,'' Bailey said. "We realize this is the closest we'll probably ever play to home.''

Probably the closest? Well, sure, it's probably the closest he and the rest of the Miramar High School crowd that populates WVU's football roster will ever come to playing at home.

Probably, that is, unless someone decides to build a stadium literally in one of their back yards.

If you've never spent much time in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area, know that it is spread out. For instance, West Virginia's team hotel is the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Clemson is staying at Westin Diplomat in Hollywood. Clemson is practicing at Nova Southeastern University. West Virginia's practice is at Barry University.

And if you set off to drive to each one of those locations, it would take roughly two hours to complete the cycle. In other words, this is a big place. Spread out doesn't begin to describe South Florida.

We bring that up only because of what is not spread out - Sun Life Stadium, where the Orange Bowl will be held on Jan. 4, and Miramar, where some of West Virginia's best players grew up and went to high school.

How cozy is that geographic relationship?

"I actually grew up across the lake from Pro Player Stadium,'' WVU quarterback Geno Smith said, referring to one of Sun Life Stadium's previous monikers. "You can't get much closer to home.''

No, you can't.

"I was probably about five minutes away,'' said Bailey, one of Smith's top receivers both at Miramar and WVU. "But even Miramar, that's within walking distance from the stadium. That's pretty much our neighborhood. Every day growing up, I passed by that stadium. To actually be able to play there and to have everybody from home there to watch, that's big. That's big for all of us from South Florida.''

Smith and Bailey aren't the only Miami area players on West Virginia's roster. There are 19 Floridians on West Virginia's roster and nine call Miami or Miramar home.

Most are in South Florida right now on break. The rest of the team will join them there on Thursday, when the team re-assembles to begin practices for the game.

And with that kind of familiarity with the area comes both the good and the bad.

"We want them to be excited about going to the game and about playing the game. But we're not going to treat it like a vacation,'' first-year West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "We obviously want to have a good time down there and let them enjoy it and be close to home and let a bunch of their friends and family come watch the game. But we've still got to get our work done and prepare and do the best that we can to make it a competitive game.''

The Miramar guys all seem focused on that. They play games in different places all the time. And they're just trying to treat this as another road game.

For friends and family, though, it's different.

"All the people who ever wanted to come to a game up here or anywhere else, now they have an opportunity to do so,'' Smith said.

That's not always easy given the distance from Miami to Morgantown or to most of the places the Mountaineers play. Shoot, even a drive from Miami to Tampa for a game at USF is a haul of some 41/2 hours.

"It's more for my family members to get a chance to see me play,'' Smith said. "They've always wanted to come up here for games or go where ever [the team plays], but it's just a distance thing. But now we get a chance to go home and everybody's going to be there. I've got long, lost cousins wanting to come to the game now. But it's going to be more special to them than me.''

How many of those long, lost cousins actually make it to the game remains to be seen, of course. Smith can get only so many tickets from teammates.

"I'm just trying to grab up as many as I can and then let my mother disperse them,'' Smith said. "If it was up to me, I'd just give them to everybody. So she's the ticket master.''

All of which leaves guys like him and Bailey to focus on what matters.

"It's a business trip. We're not taking this lightly,'' Bailey said. "It's not a vacation trip.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.


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