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HUNTINGTON — Homecoming had an innovative flair as Marshall University navigated through the pandemic to deliver, for the first time, a virtual homecoming experience.

“The past few months have been a challenge for all of us,” said Matt Hayes, executive director of alumni relations at Marshall.

“The coronavirus pandemic has presented a challenge to each of us, and we are proud in the ways that our university has dealt with these challenges and met them head on. Marshall University has been a leader and an innovator in new and exciting ways to bring our students, alumni and friends the same Marshall experience that they love and cherish.

“That is why we are excited to continue the homecoming tradition, albeit in a completely fresh and innovative new format for this year. And while we are disappointed that we will not be able to meet in person this year, we are excited to bring our alumni a fresh new take on homecoming with a full week of virtual events and activities.”

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said the pandemic was not going to destroy the homecoming spirit.

“It may not quite be the same, but the spirit and tradition of homecoming is definitely here,” Gilbert said during Saturday morning’s crowning of Mr. and Miss Marshall on the Marshall Recreation Center field.

The long-standing tradition normally takes place during halftime of the football game, but instead it was part of some of the changes taking place during the university’s first virtual homecoming week.

Kristen Shomo, 21, a senior majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry, was crowned Miss Marshall.

“This title means a lot to me because I am very passionate about helping feed the hungry, which was my platform,” she said. “It’s a two-step approach to encourage and promote Marshall students to get involved in the community and also helping with the food pantry here at Marshall. I want everyone to help me in knocking out hunger.”

Mel Thomas, 21, a senior double majoring in criminal justice and communications studies, was crowned Mr. Marshall.

Thomas, a first-generation college student, said he believes in breaking societal norms and ripping off labels.

“This means a lot to me. I want to be a model for others who strive to challenge stereotypes,” he said. “I want other students to recognize their uniqueness and understand that to be different is a great thing for society. Don’t let anyone hold you back. You can accomplish anything you want.”

Both Shomo and Thomas said they felt the spirit and traditions of homecoming throughout the week.

“It was still special this year,” Shomo said. “Everyone involved worked really hard to keep the spirit of homecoming alive and well this year.”

The virtual homecoming week, titled “Herd at Home,” featured six days of social, educational, industry and networking events that were hosted on social media and live broadcast platforms.

“I was skeptical at first, but as we have gone through the week I have really gotten into how we have done it this year,” Gilbert said. “I was blown away by the parade we did on Thursday night.”

Representing this year’s homecoming celebration as grand marshal was alumnus Allen Meadows, a prominent member of the Young Thundering Herd.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com.