When you play in the Cardinal Conference you'd better be ready to play each week.

It's a difficult conference and Logan coach Jimmy Sheppard said his Wildcats will be put to the test this fall.

"It's a tough conference," Sheppard said. "The top four or five teams will be really good and the bottom five will be pretty good. We'll have our hands full all season."

After successful 2016 and 2017 post-season runs, the Cardinal Conference had a letdown, however, last season during the playoffs.

Three conference teams - Poca (9-2), Wayne (8-3) and Mingo Central (8-3) - made it to the post-season but all three went down to defeat as the Cardinal went 0-3 in the playoffs.

Mingo Central, Poca and Wayne all lost playoff openers last season with the Miners falling 65-36 at Point Pleasant, the Pioneers losing 28-8 at Keyser and Poca dropping a 41-14 home decision to Weir.

For the Miners, it was their second setback to the Big Blacks during the 2018 campaign.

It was a disappointing end to an otherwise successful season.

The three teams tied for league championship honors last season as the Dots, Pioneers and Miners all went 8-1 within conference play.

Mingo Central's lone league loss was a 45-27 setback at Poca.

The Dots lost 23-0 at home to Wayne in the regular season finale as the Pioneers tied for the conference title. Wayne's only conference defeat was a 29-24 setback in Week 2 at home to Mingo Central.

Two other Cardinal teams knocked on the playoff door last season as Sissonville went 6-4 and Chapmanville was 5-5.

Logan and Winfield finished 4-6, while Nitro was 3-7. Herbert Hoover and Scott brought up the rear at 1-9.

After years of struggles, the Poca Dots turned it around in a big way last season.

Poca had its dreams of an undefeated season dashing in the finale however, as the Wayne Pioneers blanked the Dots. The win by Wayne forced a three-way split for the Cardinal Conference championship.

Poca's ascension to the No. 5 seed in Class AA was remarkable, considering that just two seasons ago the Dots broke a 39-game losing streak that had dogged them since 2013.

Despite its recent hardships, Poca holds quite the playoff resume, having captured three straight AA crowns from 2001-03, the first time a three-peat happened in that division. It marks the first time the Dots are in the postseason since 2010 (when they finished 5-6), and it's also their first winning record since 2006.

Poca was without leading rusher Ethan Payne down the stretch. Payne suffered a hip injury late in the season and had rolled up 1,083 yards on the ground on 110 carries and had scored 17 touchdowns before going down. Payne was a First-Team All-State selection.

Mingo Central, the 2016 Class AA state champions and the 2017 state runner-ups, expects to be especially strong again this fall with First-Team All-State wide receiver Drew Hatfield coming back along with his brother and WR Devin Hatfield and QB Daylin Goad, a Second-Team All-State selection.

Drew Hatfield was the state's leading receiver in three categories last season in catches (84), receiving yards (1,389) and touchdown catches (21). Hatfield finished with 25 total touchdowns.

Devin Hatfield caught 49 passes for 794 yards and seven touchdowns in his freshman season.

Goad led the state in touchdown passes with 44, besting Conner Neal of Fairmont Senior, who threw 37 TD passes. He threw for 2,982 yards. Hatfield was also 16th in the state in scoring with 128 points.

Winfield is stocked at the skill positions with senior quarterback Nick Vance, junior running back John Covert and senior wideout Hunter Morris.

Vance, a converted slotback, came on strong at the end of last year after battling the after-effects of a broken ankle suffered midway through the 2017 season. He threw for a school-record 525 yards with three touchdown passes in the Generals' final game against Mingo Central. He ended up finishing the season with 1,161 yards passing and 544 rushing despite missing two full games due to injury.

Covert, often operating out of Winfield's power Ram formation, ran for 1,184 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

Sheppard said Winfield will be very good again this fall."I think Winfield is going to be better than they were last year," he said. "They have a good running game with the Covert kid back at running back. He's only a junior and he was really solid last year. Poca, of course, will have (Ethan) Payne back at running back and they have a good quarterback and a couple of good receivers. Wayne is good every single year. They never seem to drop off. Chapmanville is really solid and Mingo Central has a ton of weapons and they will be hard to deal with."

Chapmanville coach Rob Dial said the Cardinal is a conference full of well coached teams and top athletes.

"This a very well coached conference," he said. "All the coaches are experienced and do a good job from a scheme standpoint and they have their teams ready week in and week out. From a talent standpoint it's very good. Look at the players from the Cardinal Conference from last year, the graduating seniors, who are playing college football. I would say at least 2-4 kids per team. Two from Logan signed, three from Chapmanville, two from Sissonville and also one or two from Nitro. They didn't have a great record but still had some good talent. They are very well coached with first-year coach Zach Davis. For us, week in and week out, you've got to be able to play."

During the season conference teams tend to beat each other up.

"Who are the leaders? I don't know," Dial said. "But every year, if you would take the seventh-place team in the Cardinal Conference and take them out and play other teams outside of the conference they may win eight ballgames. It's unfortunate that we beat each other up. The talent level in this conference has improved so much over the years. There's no easy games. We know that we have to be in shape and stay focused and peak week to week so we can win as many games as possible on Friday nights."

Paul Adkins is the sports editor of the Logan Banner. Follow him on Twitter @PAdkinsBanner or email him at padkins@hdmediallc.com.