Large Schools with a Large Problem

After about 4 weeks of practice, various scrimmages and VHSL benefit games, High School Football starts for real tomorrow night (in some places tonight) across the Commonwealth of Virginia.  And, when it does there are a handful of schools in Southwest Virginia that once again are facing another year just hoping to make the post-season, let alone win games once they get there.

Let’s take you back to 1984.  At that time the VHSL split its schools into three classifications – AAA, AA and A.  Obviously the larger schools were AAA schools and there were plenty of them in the Roanoke-Lynchburg area.  In fact, there were two main districts – the Roanoke Valley District and the Western District.

For those who grew up in Roanoke, there was AAA Football and then everything else.  The Roanoke Valley District consisted of Roanoke City’s Patrick Henry and William Fleming High Schools.  Franklin County to the South of Roanoke, Pulaski County to the West, Northside and Cave Spring from Roanoke County and Salem High School which became its own independent school district in the 1980s.   To the West, there was Lynchburg’s E.C. Glass and Heritage, George Washington from Danville, Amherst County from just outside Lynchburg, Albemarle from Charlottesville, and Halifax County to the South on the North Carolina border.

Those AAA schools had no trouble competing on the State level.  Northside made the AAA Semi-Finals in 1980, Patrick Henry went all the way to the AAA Semi-Finals in 1985 despite losing their home field of Victory Stadium to the famous Flood of ’85 before the playoffs began.  You’d be hard pressed to ever find a better high school football team than the one E.C. Glass had in 1988 when they won the State Title.  Pulaski County was Southwest Virginia’s first signature program for a major part of the 80s and 90s knocking on the door of a championship almost every year until they finally won it in 1992.  George Washington won the AAA Title in 1982 and played for it again in the early 90s.  Halifax County came from nowhere to go 14-0 and win the State Title in 1991, and while Pulaski County became Southwest Virginia’s first signature program, Salem soon joined.  The Spartans hired coach Willis White, built a beautiful new stadium, had every player from the youth leagues to high school running the same offense and became Pulaski’s biggest rival making the AAA Finals in 1986 before dropping to AA in 1988 and becoming frankly the model of success with 8 AA Titles.  And, let’s not forget William Fleming.  Behind stud running back Lee Suggs, the Colonels made it all the way to the 1997 championship game in the large schools’ division.

Fast forward to 2017 and just four of the those schools remain in Virginia’s large school classifications.  The VHSL now classifies schools from Class 6 (the largest) to Class 1 (the smallest).  Class 6 and Class 5 are what you would consider to be the former AAA schools.  Roanoke’s William Fleming and Patrick Henry are Class 5 schools.  Fleming is back up to the larger classification after over a decade in Class 4 (former Group 4A).  They are joined in Class 5 by Halifax County and the lone Class 6 school is Franklin County.

Patrick Henry has found navigating success in Virginia’s larger school divisions difficult at times.  In all fairness, PH has struggled to find the right coach.  Hiring the right coach won’t assure you of championships, but hiring the wrong one will assure you of having no chance.

However, since 2011, the school seems to have finally steadied the ship with former college coach Allen Fidler.  The Patriots have won at least 7 games four of the last 6 seasons.  The high marks are 8 wins in 2012, 2013 and 2016.  The playoffs however have been a different story.  Since their 1985 run to the AAA Semi-Finals, Patrick Henry has  lost 9 of its last 10 playoff games and haven’t won in the post-season since 1994.  Their last 4 playoff losses have come to teams from the area of Virginia spanning from Fredericksburg to Metro D.C.  Most of Virginia’s population is either in Northern Virginia, Metro Richmond or Hampton Roads and while it’s not impossible, it’s going to take a little luck for PH to ever find success in the post-season again.  The VHSL has placed the school in Class 5, Region D. The other schools in that region include William Fleming and Halifax County, but also include schools spanning the area from Fredericksburg to Metro D.C. which has been anything but kind to the Patriots in the post-season.

William Fleming is not necessarily a fair comparison.  The school dropped to AA Division 4 (now Class 4) in 2002.  That’s frankly the classification in which they belong, but the VHSL classifies schools by the number of students and Fleming’s enrollment has forced them back into the large schools classification for at least the next two years.

The Colonels last made the playoffs as a AAA level school in 1999.  They enjoyed success in the first decade of this century in AA making the playoffs in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.  Their 2003 team holds a special place in the school’s football history as they advanced all the way to the AA Division 4 championship game where they lost to Powhatan 6-0.  On the way, they had to beat Magna Vista in a state semi-final game on a Monday night at Roanoke’s now destroyed Victory Stadium.  The game had to move to Monday because the field was covered in snow and somehow the Roanoke Civic Center staff – which was in charge of maintaining the Victory Stadium field – couldn’t get it cleared until Monday.  I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but consider that it’s Roanoke City, the place that elected David Bowers mayor on two separate occasions.

That 2003 state semi-final win was Fleming last post-season win.  The Colonels have lost their last 7 post-season games, and have struggled most of this decade.  Since 2010, Fleming is just 21-50 as a AA Division 4 or Group 4A school with just one playoff game (in 2014) and three straight 1-9 seasons from 2010 – 2012.  The Colonels move back to the larger school division coming off 4-6 and 3-7 non-playoff seasons.

Halifax County is hardly worth mentioning.  Frankly, the school – located in South Boston home of the famous Ward racing brothers – is closer to Durham, North Carolina than Roanoke.  I’ve always said they should just petition to play in North Carolina.  Since winning a state title in 1991, Halifax County hasn’t won a post-season game and their last two playoff games in 2014 and 2015 haven’t been close losing both by a combined score of 113-0.  Oh and the three years William Fleming went 1-9, those three wins were over – you guessed it – Halifax County.

The school I especially feel bad for is poor Franklin County.  Located in Rocky Mount, Virginia about 30 minutes from the Roanoke City limits, it is the only high school in the County.  Franklin County bills itself as the moonshine capital of the world with reportedly more moonshine stills in its remote hills than any other place in America.  That may just be legend, but what is true is that Franklin County is a place where good coaches go to die and bad coaches have no chance.

The school has 2,107 students but apparently struggles to find 22 that can actually play football.  As the lone Class 6 school west of Richmond Franklin County has been placed in Class 6 Region B with 7 other schools, all from the Metro Richmond area.  Region B has decided to take 7 of its 8 schools to the post-season so Franklin County may begin the season tomorrow night by being the first school to clinch a post-season spot.

Of the 8 schools in the Region, it’s enrollment is the third largest, but if Franklin County makes the post-season, the odds are good that they will be taking a bus to metro Richmond for the playoffs.

The school has had great players in the past particularly running back Mark Poindexter in the 1980s.  They’ve also had two coaches in recent years that really achieved about as much success as you could possibly hope at the school.  Longtime Salem assistant Billy Miles actually took Franklin County to the post-season for the first time in 2002, then followed that up in 2003 and 2005.   All three times, the Eagles lost in the first round.

The best run of success Franklin County had came when my buddy Chris Jones took the job in 2009.  First, I will admit – while not telling him this – that I thought he was crazy for taking the job, but Chris is a no-nonsense kind of coach.  You don’t work hard you don’t play and if you don’t come to practice, you aren’t on the team.  A former NAIA offensive lineman at Concord College with roots in the coal fields of West Virginia, Jones never played in a playoff game as a player at famed Big Creek High School in War, West Virginia.  He’s certainly coached in enough of them though.

Whether he just stepped into a situation with better athletes, or – more likely – he just coached them better, from 2009 to 2011 Franklin County went 9-3 each season, won the school’s first playoff game in 2009, and won playoff games again in 2010 and 2011.  The Eagles then lost in the second round all three times to schools from the Fredericksburg area.   But, remember what I said about good coaches dying in Rocky Mount.  That’s what happened to Chris Jones.  His final three seasons where 4-6, 4-6 and 1-9.  He sat out of coaching in 2015 to watch his son Tyler play at Northside and then resurfaced last year at Covington where I’m certain that if he’ll stick with it, Covington will be a major success.  The sticking with it part, may be the issue.

Franklin County’s current coach is J.R. Edwards, who had an auspicious start going 1-19 in his first two years including 0-10 in 2015. The Eagles went 4-6 last year and while they again may be the team in the Roanoke area to start the season most likely to make the playoffs, they also have the dilemma that the other large schools have in the area.

You qualify for the playoffs in Virginia by point rating and the VHSL will give bonus points for playing smaller level schools.  Those four schools really have no choice but to play smaller schools and get creative with scheduling.  William Fleming will play William Byrd – one of the better Class 4 schools in the state – twice in three weeks and also have a trip to Fredericksburg to play North Stafford.  Patrick Henry has only two AAA level schools on their schedule, one being Fleming in Week 3 and Albemarle in Week 4.  But, they do have a chance to score playoff points.  They play Blacksburg, Salem, Pulaski County and Staunton River who all figure to be good and a few wins there could score enough points to host a game on their home field.  Franklin County has just one AAA level school on the schedule in Halifax County.

We all know that nothing stays the same forever, and in 33 years that can certainly be said for large school football in Southwest Virginia.  That’s why if one of these 4 schools can ever capture the magic of the past and make a playoff run, it’s likely to be one of the biggest stories in the state because what was once AAA Football in the Roanoke area, and everything else, is now just everything else.


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