MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Long Island Sharks are a football team in unfamiliar waters.
They were a Division II program as recently as 2018, moving up after that to the FCS level and the Northeast Conference.
They had never faced an FBS opponent until last week, when they lost at Florida International, 48-10, in their 2021 season opener.
This Saturday will be their first-ever game against a Power 5 foe, as they make the trip to West Virginia for a contest that will kick off at 5 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN+.
While most at LIU are in unfamiliar territory, one Shark who knows the area where he’s headed very well is Ben Waibogha, who grew up in Morgantown just over the hill from Mountaineer Field. He’s now given up the twisty streets of the Morgantown for the crowded ones of Brookville, New York, which is about 30 miles out the Long Island peninsula from Manhattan, so he can play football for Long Island University.
Ben’s father, Sylvanus Waibogha, is a math professor at WVU, and the son is a 6-foot-2, 217-pound defensive end for LIU.
“Growing up in Morgantown, being around the atmosphere and the fans and everything, it’s going to be surreal to be able to play at Mountaineer Field,” said Ben, who is a junior at LIU. “It’s like a dream-come-true for me, because I always wanted to play there in front of 65,000 or 70,000 people.
“Playing in front of all the people I went to high school with, my old coaches, teachers, parents and friends, it makes my world, but at the same time, it’s a football game and I have to play to the best of my ability,” he added. “It’s going to be fun being back in my hometown, but at the same time, it’s a business trip.”
Growing up in Morgantown, Waibogha was highly regarded for both his attitude and athletic ability, eventually becoming a Class AAA special honorable mention all-state player at MHS.
“Ben was an excellent player for us and a really hard worker,” said Matt Lacy, who served as Morgantown High’s head football coach from 2016-19 and was an assistant coach on the MHS staff for 17 seasons prior to that. “I always thought he would go on to do great things. In fact, I’m surprised by what he did here and what he did at Lackawanna that he didn’t end up at an even bigger college program. Still, he’s doing great things at LIU, and I’m really proud of him.”
Following the end of his Mohigan career, Waibogha spent two seasons (2018-19) as a safety at Lackawanna (Pa.) College, which has one of the best juco football programs in the country. The Falcons have produced dozens of high-level players like Kevin, Ka’Raun and Kyzir White, who all went on to star at WVU. After Lackawanna, Ben was initially headed to Hampton (Va.) University, but then things changed, both in terms of his destination and his eventual position.
He switched to LIU and also to defensive end.
“When you are a safety guarding receivers, you don’t get hit every play,” explained Waibogha of his move to d-end. “But when you play on the defensive line, you’re going to get hit every time, no matter what play is called. That’s the biggest thing that stuck out to me, but that’s all mental. You have to have that ‘dawg’ mentality and not be scared of anything.”
He had three tackles in his first game at the new position in LIU’s opener at Florida Atlantic last week, though the Sharks fell, 48-10, in the program’s first- FBS opponent above the FCS level.
Waibogha’s position change didn’t necessarily surprise his high school, who saw him getting bigger and stronger throughout the years.
“He came to us as a skinny kid from (Suncrest) middle school and really worked hard in the weight room to build one heck of a frame,” noted Lacy. “He was a safety for us who ran well and could really cover. In the locker room, Ben was always great leader, someone who always had a smile on his face and really lifted his teammates up.”
Waibogha’s return to Morgantown this Saturday brings him back to a college program he’s known since he was a youngster.
“My first Mountaineer moment, I was playing for a local peewee football team, the Evansdale Tigers,” remembered Waibogha. “We would have (West Virginia) players come to some of our practices, and we would even practice at the WVU Indoor Facility some times. When we were there, players like Noel Devine, Geno Smith, Jock Sander, players like that who were literal WVU legends, would watch us.
“Those are things I’ll never forget and seeing that era of WVU football was special.”
Now Waibogha will be on Mountaineer Field himself with numerous family and friends watching from the stands.
The loyalties for many will probably be mixed, including those of his own father, who has been a member of the West Virginia University faculty for many years.
“I was actually on the phone with my dad last night, and he said, ‘I’m kind of conflicted. This is where I’m working, but you’re my son; I don’t know what to do’,” laughed Ben. “I told him, ‘You have to wear LIU gear, because I’m your son; I’m your blood!’
“So, I think he’s going to wear LIU gear, though he may hear about it from his students.”