Tom Harrison looks like the type of guy football players tease in high school: bespectacled, maybe 160 pounds soaking wet. But as a part-time physics and math teacher at Monticello High School, he showed up for the school’s game last Friday as a sign of support for the players and new coach Jeff Woody, with whom he had a particularly productive conversation a few months back.
“The coach came to me at the beginning of the year and said, ‘If you have any problems with any of my players, come talk to me,’” Harrison said. “He meant it.”
Harrison had been told MHS was a new football powerhouse, and he thought the Mustangs’ homecoming game against rival Charlottesville High School on October 4 would be a good chance to see three student athletes he teaches in action.
The 2007 AA Division 3 Virginia State Champion, MHS turned in two impressive winning seasons and reached the state quarterfinal game in 2012 under its previous head coach Rodney Redd. When Redd left at the end of last season to pursue a college coaching gig at Virginia State, the school hired Woody, a proven winner who took home the back-to-back state championships at Brookville High School outside Lynchburg.
This year, Woody’s working with 16 returning starters from the 2012 team, and the Mustangs are running hard again. The squad jumped out to a fast 4-0 start before playing host to CHS, and there is talk of the team competing for another state title.
Harrison said he was excited to see what his students and the rest of the team could do against the 2-2 CHS Black Knights, but there was one thing dampening his excitement: Both his children are CHS graduates.
In the end, Harrison rooted for his employer rather than his kids’ alma mater. But it’s those types of conflicts that make a game like MHS-CHS more than just a game, according to CHS Head Coach Eric Sherry.
“Once the lights hit on Friday, I don’t have to motivate the kids for the Monticello game,” Sherry said. “The student body has a big rivalry with Monticello, because these kids live close by.”
On paper, the game set up to be a bit of a mismatch. How would CHS defend two MHS running backs averaging nearly 100 yards per game? How would they handle the size of MHS’s receivers? And how would they handle being the road team on homecoming night against their crosstown rivals?
Maybe, just maybe, the Black Knights could do what they did last year, when they came out of nowhere to beat the bigger and stronger Mustangs. Maybe they could feed off the rivalry, and play spoiler two years in a row.
“Sometimes in these rivalry games, the emotion seems to be more intense, and momentum plays a big factor,” Woody said. “At the same time, these guys know it is going to take a full 48 minutes of attention.”
The clock started ticking when the ref’s whistle blew. “High school football is pretty simple,” said one of the referees milling around and chatting with the other zebras before the game.”The smaller the town, the bigger it is,” he said. “It’s a community event.”
That would put a game at Monticello High School somewhere about the middle of the pack in terms of popularity. But tell that to the tailgaters sprinkled throughout the school’s parking lot by 6pm before the homecoming tilt, the streams of cars pulling up to drop kids off for their Friday night out, or the group of prep football buffs chatting field-side before kickoff.
Charlottesville High School Head Coach Eric Sherry also seems to have missed the memo. He was all business as he led his team into the visitors’ locker room around 6:15pm. When he told his boys to focus and keep the noise down, he did not say it nicely.
“When I came [to CHS in 2011], the culture of football was down,” he said. “The kids weren’t putting forth the effort required to become winners. I am very happy with the progress.”
Sherry’s only problem? The horde of black-jerseyed teenagers who came marching down the middle of the MHS parking lot around 6:45pm, molded football cleats clicking in time, laser-focused looks in their eyes.
MHS jumped out to a quick lead over the Black Knights in the first half of the rivalry game, but a scrappy performance by the CHS defensive line and a key turnover late in the half left the team with momentum and a trimmed 27-10 deficit going into the locker room. It was a steep hole to climb out of on the road, but the underdog was still in the game.
The homecoming halftime brought its challenges for both teams. A handful of Mustangs were on the homecoming court and never made it off the field, posing for photos and shuffling through prescribed rituals instead of taking on fluids. CHS players scrambled to find spots to sit on the ground in the shadows of the grandstand to save their legs during the 20-minute interlude.
While the band played an abbreviated performance (the PA announcer reminding the crowd to stay after the game for the full show), and MHS crowned its homecoming king and queen, Sherry addressed his team.
“There isn’t much difference between the two football teams except for the fact that I think you’re more physical,” he said.“They don’t believe they can lose to you. If you get back into this real quick, you watch who starts tightening up.”
With CHS getting the ball to start the second half, anything seemed possible.CHS came out firing, with a long, well-paced drive to start the second half. But the drive stalled, and all momentum seemed to go out of the Black Knights’ sideline at once.
Across the gridiron, the home field advantage swelled as the MHS crowd rang their cowbells a little louder, beat their thunder sticks a little harder, and blew their trumpets with a little more force as the half went on. The students were fired up, covered with body paint and dancing choreographed numbers, and the fans were knowledgeable, razzing the refs when they thought the crew missed a horse-collar tackle, and getting to their feet when the Mustangs broke a long run.
With CHS playing eight guys on both sides of the ball and MHS asking only two to go both ways, it seemed only a matter of time before Coach Jeff Woody’s fast paced offense would take over. He and his team pushed the score to 54-10 by the time the final siren sounded.
“He is a brilliant offensive guy,” MHS Athletic Director Fitzgerald Barnes said of his new coach. “He’s got it down.”
For the Black Knights’ faithful, the road back to glory has to be taken one step at a time. To Woody’s eye, CHS is heading in the right direction.
“They are a good football team, got a lot of good athletes, and the rivalry brought a lot of intensity early,” he said. “It was tough to get things going, but we stayed the course and kept on pounding and it finally started to open up for us.”
After the game, neither coach wanted to talk about the long-term outlook this season. They’re just looking at their next opponents, waiting for the next time the lights come up on Friday night.