The crowd at the final Alleghany-Covington football game last fall. Photo by Robert Anderson.
The crowd at the final Alleghany-Covington football game last fall. Photo by Robert Anderson.

What’s this math they are teaching in the newly created Alleghany Highlands School District?

One plus one equals … one?

That’s the equation school officials hope adds up to a successful consolidation of two rival high schools in Western Virginia: Alleghany and Covington.

Beginning with the 2023-24 academic year, the neighboring schools’ student bodies will merge as one.

High school students in grades nine through 12 will attend a “new” Alleghany High School in the existing building at its current location. The current Covington High building will serve as the division’s middle school. A brand new central administration already has hit the ground running.

In October 2021, students in both communities had considerable input in choosing the name of the new high school, its mascot and the school colors.

The winning combination was the Alleghany Cougars. Along with that spirit of compromise, the new colors came from both sides of the aisle, the navy blue of Covington and the Columbia blue of Alleghany.

But what would that mixed palette look like?

The school system had the answer Monday as officials and students unveiled Alleghany High’s new Cougar mascot, logos and even a spiffy new marching band uniform.

Solidarity and unity were the themes of the day, 

“Cougars in the wild are known mostly as solitary animals, not known for working in groups,” Alleghany Highlands School Board Vice Chairman Jonathan Arritt said during a brief ceremony at Jackson River Technical Center. “Our Cougar was born through a unifying spirit of purpose, focus and resolve that is present throughout the Alleghany Highlands.

“That purpose was to provide the best future possible for our children. That focus was to do the work that needed to be done, and the resolve was to see it through. It’s important we all recognize the blending of traditions.”

YouTube video

So far, the blender has filled six jobs coaching varsity athletic programs or directing extracurricular activities including head football coach Will Fields, who spent the last three seasons as the head coach at Alleghany.

The other appointments beginning in 2023-24 are:

Boys and girls cross country: Jeremy Bartley, who coached Alleghany’s boys to the 2020 Class 2 championship and the girls to the 2022 title, the only VHSL titles in school history.

Golf: Brian Ellwood, who was the coach at Alleghany in 2020.

Volleyball: Charles “Thumper” Leitch, a former girls basketball head coach at Alleghany.

Cheerleading: Kim Jefferson, who has been the coach/sponsor at Covington since 2006.

Band director: Adam Eggleston, who is in his first year at Alleghany.

Choir director: Amanda Sprouse, who has been at Alleghany since 2006.

Head coaches for winter and spring sports and activities will be hired after their respective seasons. The school division will accept applications from inside and outside the system.

The “new” Alleghany High already is looking for a new athletic director. The division made big headlines last spring when it hired former Virginia Tech assistant football coach Bryan Stinespring as its first AD.

However, Stinespring accepted a job in January as an assistant coach on new VMI football coach Danny Rocco’s staff. Fields will serve as interim AD until Alleghany hires Stinespring’s replacement.

As the two schools merge their varsity athletic programs into a single team, legitimate angst exists for athletes:

Will I still have my starting position or my place on the team?

What will it be like to play for a new coach?

How will I get along with a teammate who was in a different uniform a year ago?

Fields is aware of those worries, but the interim athletic director sees other positive aspects of the consolidation.

“I’ve heard concerns about shrinking opportunities as two schools become one,” Fields said. “Certainly, that’s a factor, but I think there are going to be more opportunities than people believe. We’re already reaping the benefits.

“Individual sports like wrestling and swimming are difficult to practice with small teams. Our teams are already practicing together and are able to compete against each other in practice. It’s crucial to get those repetitions in practice.”

Fields said he already has been conducting offseason weightlifting sessions with prospective Alleghany football players who are finishing the school year at Covington on the Cougars’ campus.

“I went over to meet with their kids,” he said. “The first thing I told them was, ‘If you had to choose, you probably wouldn’t have chosen me. But I chose you, and I’m happy about coaching you.’

“I’m just trying to make inroads. We’re going to treat them all the same. We’re glad to have them. It’s not like we couldn’t use more players.”

YouTube video
The program for the final Alleghany-Covington football game. Photo by Robert Anderson.
The program for the final Alleghany-Covington football game. Photo by Robert Anderson.

Covington struggled to find enough football players to field a team in 2021 on the heels of the 2020 season abbreviated by COVID-19. Last year when the Cougars played at Alleghany in the second week of the football season, Covington had fewer than 25 in uniform.

“Both schools have had difficulty fielding [teams] particularly on the sub-varsity level,” Fields said. “This will change all of that. [Covington has not] had some JV teams off and on. They’ve had JV football in [only] one of the last four years. Sometimes they don’t have JV baseball and softball. We’re going to have more robust JV programs and more robust middle school programs. The benefits are going to be able to trickle up to the varsity.” 

“With two student bodies coming together, we’re going to have more interest. Our band and choral groups will be able to have more complete sections to add to their sound. There will be more actors for our dramatic productions.”

The consolidated Alleghany school will remain a member of the Three Rivers District, which also will include Carroll County, Floyd County, Glenvar, James River, Patrick County and Radford.

Declining population

The Alleghany-Covington school merger was driven partly by declining population in both localities.

Alleghany County’s peak population came in 1940 when the population of Alleghany and Clifton Forge (then a city, now a town) was 29,149.

The 2020 census counted 15,223 people.

Covington’s peak population came in 1960 with 11,062.

The 2020 census counted 5,737.

The big difference is that Alleghany and Covington’s combined enrollment will move up from Class 2 as one of the smaller schools in Class 3. The Cougars have been placed in Region 3C. The other 3C members are Broadway, Brookville, Charlottesville, East Rockingham, Fluvanna County, Heritage-Lynchburg, Liberty Christian, Monticello, Rockbridge County, Rustburg, Staunton, Spotswood, Waynesboro, Wilson Memorial and Western Albemarle.

A sizeable crowd attended the final Alleghany-Covington football game in September, generating revenue that likely will not be replaced by any single home game in 2023.

Alleghany and nearby Greenbrier East High of West Virginia are beginning a “Border Rivalry” series in hopes of minimizing the impact to the gate receipts.

The Cougars’ other nondistrict games will be against Waynesboro, Fort Defiance and Rockbridge County. The first football game for the consolidated school will be against Waynesboro on Aug. 25.

“[The football attendance] is not what it was because of declining population, but it’s a hit,” Fields said. “We hope to build up some of these rivalries to play teams that are close that will travel.”

The Brackman Trophy, awarded to the winner of the annual Alleghany-Covington game. Photo by Robert Anderson.
The Brackman Trophy, awarded to the winner of the annual Alleghany-Covington game. Photo by Robert Anderson.

Covington junior Rocklynn Phillips will walk new hallways as a senior next year at Alleghany. An unknown future awaits. Phillips, who plays football and is participating in swimming this year at Covington for the first time, is looking forward to testing his mettle.

“More competition, but we get both schools put together,” he said. “It’s always good to meet new people, give someone else a shot at that. I’m excited for it because it’s [about] who wants it the most. It’s all about winning. That’s what I want to do, is win.”

Alleghany freshman Kiera Lowman took care of that just fine in November when she won the VHSL Class 2 girls cross country championship and led the Mountaineers to the team title.

“I think there are going to be a lot of good things that come with academics and athletics,” she said. “I’m excited to have more teammates and classmates. I think there are a lot of positives.”

One plus one is one?

Alleghany Highlands superintendent Kim Holterman hopes so.

“We’re excited to reach this milestone,” she said. “That’s what this endeavor is really all about.”

Robert Anderson worked for 44 years in Virginia as a sports writer, most recently as the high school...