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ONE YEAR LATER: Rye Cove goes from suspending season to 5-0

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CLINCHPORT, Va. – Jonathon Howell had seen and heard about such scenes playing out at other localities for other squads comprised of other teenagers.

Standing-room only crowds hanging on every play; those same spectators flooding the field after a victory to offer congratulatory words and pats on the back; prominent placements on the local television highlight shows and in the pages of newspapers; questions about the team from childhood chums in the hallways and strangers in the community.

Yet, the Rye Cove running back and linebacker probably figured he and his teammates could just keep dreaming about being part of such a scenario themselves.

After all, the first three seasons of his high school football career had featured four wins (all when he was a ninth-grader) and countless disappointments, the most disheartening of which was a premature end to the 2021 season when the Eagles’ roster dwindled to the point where there weren’t enough healthy players to safely keep competing and the final four games were canceled.

Unexpected to most and appreciated by all, however, Howell and his pals are basking in the spotlight these days as the Rye Cove Eagles have become a main attraction in authoring a total turnaround in regards to their football fortunes.

Nobody would have predicted this a month ago: Rye Cove is 5-0.

The folks of Clinchport, Duffield, Fairview, Pattonsville and other map dots that comprise the community that supports the small Scott County school with an enrollment of 199 have taken notice in a major way.

“I’ve never seen the crowd packed like it has been on Friday nights,” Howell said prior to practice on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s so cool to be able to look in the stands when we come out at 6 o’clock for warm-ups with kickoff at 7 and people are struggling to find a seat and lining the fence already. It’s been a huge difference-maker to us on the field.”

An energetic 56-year-old rookie head coach in Gary Collier, an influx of young talent and some determined veterans are among the reasons Rye Cove is enjoying a gridiron renaissance.

The unbeaten Eagles are the feel-good story in Southwest Virginia – and perhaps the entire Virginia High School League – through the midway point of the season and with each triumph keep putting a decade of struggles in the rearview mirror.

A 26-24 season-opening win over Hurley snapped a 13-game losing strength that dated back to Oct. 25, 2019.

A 20-0 blanking of the Northwood Panthers in Week 2 marked the first shutout and winning streak for the Eagles in five years.

Prior to a thrilling 30-28 double-overtime decision over Thomas Walker two weeks ago, Rye Cove hadn’t won a Cumberland District game since 2018.

Off to their best start since 1989, the Eagles are headed for their first playoff berth in 11 years and carry a perfect record into tonight’s non-district road game against the Lee High Generals.

A roster numbering 35 strong and a large group of friends will make the trip.

“We’re having a blast,” Collier said. “These kids are working their tails off, the community is behind us, the school is behind us and we’re getting so much support from everybody. From where it was last year to this year … we really couldn’t have written the script any better.”

***

It was around 8:20 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2021 – a Saturday night – in Clinchport and the bands at both Lee High and Rye Cove had just finished performing at halftime during the game between the two teams.

The Cove trailed 32-0 against the Generals when the public address announcer took the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, let me have your attention please. After talking to Coach [Cheyenne] Osborne, we have two players that have concussion symptoms and another that is injured. Therefore, for the safety of our team, we are going to have to cancel the rest of the game.”

It was a surreal scene that included a mixture of shock and sadness.

A couple of days later Rye Cove officials announced its remaining games with Eastside, Twin Valley, J.I. Burton and Twin Springs would not be played. The junior varsity team still played the remainder of its schedule.

Howell had happened to score the final touchdown of the season.

“It’s was kind of hard to comprehend,” Howell said. “I wouldn’t really have imagined not finishing a whole season, but I kind of understand why they made the decision when we had just 11 or 12 players. Now, here we are about to play Lee High again and hopefully, we earn their respect.”

Three-hundred and sixty-three days later, Rye Cove vs. Lee High has a whole different storyline.

“I intended to have a short sendoff for the boys before they play at Lee High,” said Rye Cove principal Chris Stapleton. “Just a chance for the school to say, ‘Good luck, boys.’ My cheerleaders sprang into action and organized it into a full-blown pep rally on their own. That type of enthusiasm has been severely muted for a long time. It’s good to see it return to the Cove.”

***

Gary Collier hadn’t coached high school football in four years, since a stint as an assistant at Gate City, when Scott County school board member Rob Hood gave him a call and asked if he would be interested in taking over the post vacated by Cheyenne Osborne.

Collier had retired after 31 years in law enforcement in May 2021 and was itching to get back into coaching again. He thought he’d land somewhere as an assistant coach, but he was intrigued by the offer from Rye Cove.

“I didn’t hesitate,” Collier said. “I was hungry, the kids were hungry and it’s been a great fit. There was nowhere to go but up was one way to look at it. I knew we had some good young players, but we had a lot of work to do. We just went to work.”

Collier’s positivity was a plus and the participation in offseason weightlifting sessions grew.

“I’ll be honest, I was skeptical at the beginning, before I ever met him,” Howell said. “I was so used to Coach [Osborne] and he was a friend and like family to us. But once I saw what Coach Collier was capable of and met him, I bought into everything he had to offer.”

Collier didn’t have any delusions of grandeur either and didn’t immediately install complicated schemes. In taking over a rebuilding project, Collier began at the ground floor.

“I told them that we were going to start from scratch,” Collier said. “I told the new kids that had never played before that they wouldn’t be lost because we are starting over – how to get in a three-point stance, four-point stance, their splits. We went back to the basics. They picked up on everything so quick and we have just built off that. The things we are doing offensively now with different sets, nobody would have thought that several months ago. They’ve worked hard to get there.”

An entirely new coaching staff was put in place as well and some assistants had previous head-coaching experience.

B.I. Salyers had most recently been an assistant coach at Dobyns-Bennett after stints as the main man at Chincoteague, St. Paul, Castlewood and J.J. Kelly.

Robbie Norris was previously the head coach at Sullivan North and had won many games at the Northeast Tennessee school.

Mark Rollins, Chris Rollins, Brad Bowen, Lawrence Tankersley, Martin Sloan and Shawn Lawson are also on the staff.

“It’s been a good fit,” Collier said.

Collier has been a part of memorable seasons before.

He was a multi-sport star at now-defunct Pennington High School in Lee County. He says Rye Cove reminds him of his alma mater.

That was followed by a record-setting career at Emory & Henry College where he became an All-American quarterback. He once threw for 384 yards and six touchdowns against Samford, which was coached by Terry Bowden and featured current Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher as the quarterback.

E&H reached the semifinals of the NCAA Division III playoffs in 1987, dropping a 20-13 decision to Wagner.

“That was a special time and special place in the mid to late-80s,” Collier said. “That was a football family we had that made that run. If not for an injury or two, we may win it all. We had a lot of people on the team from Southwest Virginia that had been overlooked [by major college programs] and it all kind of came together at Emory. It was good times.”

The good times are continuing these days for a guy in his first season as a head football coach at the varsity level.

“It’s not about me, it’s about these kids,” Collier said. “We’re all fortunate that it’s fell into place like it has.”

***

It looked like it might be more of the same on Aug. 26.

Rye Cove trailed 24-14 with seven minutes remaining in its season-opener against Hurley.

“They had the opportunity to lay down right there,” Collier said. “But they chose not to.”

A rally gave the Eagles their first win in nearly three years.

The next week they were locked in a scoreless tie at halftime with Northwood.

“I remember telling the other coaches on Wednesday of that week that we were still thinking about our win,” Collier said. “They couldn’t let it go, but they came out and played well in the second half. We’ve kind of implemented a 48-hour rule. Enjoy it for 48 hours and then Monday morning we have to get back to work.”

A team that hadn’t won much lately has learned how to handle those wins and not lose focus.

The starting lineup features four freshmen, four sophomores and three seniors.

Sophomore Landon Lane has excelled as the quarterback, junior Payton Darnell is the top rusher, freshman Luke Jessee is the leading receiver and sophomore Trevor Darnell has the most tackles.

Last week Rye Cove rolled to a 42-7 win over Castlewood.

“We had more fans than they did,” said senior offensive tackle/defensive end Jackson Barnette.

Rye Cove will be the underdogs tonight against a Class 2 opponent that is a member of the Mountain 7 District. That the Eagles are even in the spot they are in now is more intriguing than the outcome.

“I knew we would be all right with the new coaching staff and the numbers we had,” Barnette said. “I didn’t know it would turn out this good. … Before the season began, they said the community was buzzing and it definitely has been now.”

thayes@bristolnews.com — Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports <&dateline> (276) 645-2570

thayes@bristolnews.com | Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports | (276) 645-2570

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