By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
Tonight’s “Wagon Wheel” game between Lone Star Conference South Division rivals Eastern New Mexico University and West Texas A&M might be a bit more emotional than usual for WT coach Don Carthel.
After all, Carthel was on the other side of the rivalry as ENMU’s coach from 1985-91. He also played football at Eastern from 1970-73.
The division-leading Buffaloes (6-0, 2-0 South), ranked sixth this season in NCAA Division II, beat the Greyhounds in a 52-51 overtime shootout last season at Canyon, Texas, but this is Carthel’s first trip as their coach to his old stomping grounds.
“It’ll be good to go back to Blackwater Draw,” said Carthel, who has turned around a moribund Buffs program, going 16-2 since taking over last year. “I’ve got a lot of good friends back there and a lot of fond memories.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my experience at Eastern.”
Meantime, second-year ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo also has experience on both sides of the rivalry. He was an assistant coach at WT for five years in the 1990s, and has been on the Hounds’ staff since 1997.
“This will be my 15th Wagon Wheel game,” he said. “It’s a game where you just get to go play, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“You can rest assured that both teams are going to play pretty good.”
Last year, the Buffs came in unbeaten and on a roll, while the Hounds had shaken off the affects of an 0-2 start with four consecutive wins. The game went back and forth and wasn’t decided until the Hounds came up short on a 2-point conversion in overtime.
WT opened South play with a 51-31 win at Texas A&M-Kingsville two weeks ago, then prevailed at home over Midwestern State 29-27 in a seesaw battle of unbeatens.
Carthel said last week’s game was important, but no more so than any other South clash.
“They’re all equally important,” he said. “We had a big win Saturday, and we were excited about getting out of there with a win.”
WT’s coaching staff also includes former ENMU All-American Michael Sinclair, a 12-year veteran of the National Football League who played under Carthel, and former NFL No. 1 draft pick Ryan Leaf.
Carthel said Sinclair, a graduate assistant, has helped develop the Buffs’ defensive line.
“We work really good together; we’re so fortunate to have him,” Carthel said. “With his background in the NFL, our defensive linemen listen to what he says.”
Leaf, who had well-documented struggles at the pro level after coming out of Washington State, has worked with senior quarterback Dalton Bell and the Buffs’ potent offense.
Meantime, the Hounds (1-4, 0-2) are coming off a 17-7 loss at Angelo State and have lost three in a row.
“We need to be a little more consistently proficient on both sides of the ball,” Ribaudo said. “We’ve had some injuries that have hurt us a little bit and we’ve got some kids in new positions. It takes time to adjust.
“We have to move the ball a little better and we have to get our opponent off the field on third down a little better.”