Fall has been my favorite time of year for as long as I can remember, and when I think back to the things I love most about this time of year it always seems to start and end with football season. I mean, we all love the leaves in the fall (and we happen to live in arguably the best place for that) and the absolutely perfect temperatures that weave in and out through September and October. Not to mention the fact that you can pull just about anything out of your closet and it never really be too hot or too cold out for it. But, if you've ever been a part of Friday night high school football in any capacity, you know there's a certain magic that comes along with that which trumps all of the other great things about the season.
I was blessed to have lived in Coal Grove, Ohio throughout high school and played football all four years for a sometimes underachieving, but mostly successful and proud football program. We had moved to Coal Grove in the middle of football season when I was in the 8th grade. I can remember a distinct moment on a Friday night in late October that year as I was sitting in the living room watching all of the local high school football highlights on "The Point After" and seeing where the Hornets had won the Ohio Valley Conference. I'm not sure if I'm overdramatizing this memory to set it up to play out like a scene from 'Remember the Titans' or what, but I remember right at that moment hearing an army of car horns honking their way down Pike Street and right past our house as football players, cheerleaders and loyal fans in general chanted "O-V-C, O-V-C..."
I already couldn't wait for summer to roll around and I could wear the black, white and red for the first time. To this day, one of my favorite memories is walking out of the locker room and hearing the drums cracking from our marching band week after week, then running on to the field as they played our school fight song. Ever since then, I've been in love with the sport and with this time of year.
And this has definitely been a good one for me when it comes to high school football. Up here in central West Virginia, three of the teams and schools I work with the most have had great seasons so far. First off, the Webster County Highlanders finished the regular season at 9-1 and will host a home playoff game Friday, Nov. 10 against Summers County, the only team to get the best of the Highlanders this season — a game decided by 4 points at WCHS. The Nicholas County Grizzlies will travel to Clarksburg to take on Liberty High School. A pair of losses in the middle of the season by a combined 10 points to James Monroe and Braxton County are all that kept the Grizzlies' record from staying perfect. And speaking of Braxton County (my new "home team"), the Eagles were just one yard away from sealing a win against Sissonville in the last week of the regular season, which would have put them at 8-2 and given them a shot at hosting a playoff game as well. However, a miscue on the snap flipped their fortunes and resulted in a Sissonville win. Still in the playoffs though, the Eagles dropped to the 15th spot and will travel to Bluefield this week.
Last but not least, there's my hometown Coal Grove Hornets. What a season so far! For those of you not familiar with the area, football (and sports in general) are different there than they are here in central West Virginia, geographically speaking. Up here in Braxton County, WV the Eagles have to travel no less than 30 minutes in a few different directions to get to their nearest opponents (Lewis County, Nicholas County or Clay County). For Coal Grove, many of the in-conference opponents are along the same stretch of highway, separated by as much as an hour or as little as 10 minutes. Even when we would play teams out-of-state, it might only be a 10 or 15 minute drive over to Ashland or Russell High School in Kentucky.
I kept hearing from friends back home that this was a pretty special team. When I saw them take the field, I could see why. We have a good group of athletes this year and an impressive young coaching staff, led by head coach Even Ferguson. As a player, Ferguson transferred to Coal Grove from Wayne High School (WV) back in 2009 and helped the Hornets reach the playoffs. As a coach, he's led them to a 10-1 record, including a home playoff win against Shennendoah High School.
I have to admit, the first time I saw them take the field it was pretty wild. Not only were some of these players guys I had photographed in youth football 10 years ago or so, but when I see them without a helmet, they look eerily similar to guys I went to school with. Then it hits me — I'm not as young as I once was. These are the kids of guys I played football with. I'll say it again — it's pretty wild.
I've had the chance to photograph them on three separate occasions this season. The first was a home game against Lucasville, a 38-20 win. The second was another home game, but not just any game at all. This game was against our nearest neighbor up the river. Ironton was once a powerhouse not only in southern Ohio, but well known throughout the state for it's rich history, many playoff appearances and state championships. The blowhards would always say there was no chance any Coal Grove team EVER would beat an Ironton team. So Friday, October 13, 2017 was a day that many of us Hornets had long-waited for. The game was never in question as the Hornets rolled the once proud Tigers, 28-7 (click here to view gallery). Which brings us to the third ...
The buzz is in the air. The Hornets, while retaining tradition as well as team and hometown pride, have a renewed swagger and somewhat of a new identity. When I played under head coach Dave Lucas, the locker room was dead silent before games. Nobody said a word. We were locked in and focused. And so is this group, but in their own way. The locker room music is loud, the mood is light and these guys are simply having fun playing football. While they might still come on the field in pre-game to AC/DC's Back in Black, you won't see another mud-soaked jersey on that field as it's since been turfed. You'll definitely hear the familiar cowbell and touchdown cannon, but the once quiet time-outs are now blasted with the House of Pain's 'Jump Around' between PA announcements by Craig Haney. Where we used to make a paper-covered hoop to run through before the games, we now have a gigantic inflatable Hornet smoke tunnel to run through. Things change, but they still stay the same — such as the distinct smell of the locker room, for instance.
Now, that third game. Last Friday, Nov. 3, the Hornets hosted the first-ever home playoff game at LeMaster Stadium (Patterson Field for us old-timers). While there was a big debate over whether we should be saying "Roll Coal" or the old faithful "Go Big Grove", everyone could agree that our team this year is special. I don't know that I ever experienced home game with as much electricity as was in the air that night. In a game that went down to the wire, the Hornets survived the Zeps and escaped with a 7-6 win. It may sound like a boring game, but it was definitely one of the more exciting games I've seen this season. It definitely makes me excited to see what's in store for Coal Grove football not only the rest of this season, but upcoming years as well.
The Hornets travel to Lucasville this week to take on Southeastern High School of Chillicothe. Game time is set for 7:30pm.