One prospective varsity football player showed up for the first day of helmets-and-shorts-only practice at Alleghany High School wearing shoulder pads.
Another forgot to bring the required form from his doctor indicating he had taken a physical exam.
And yet another player leading the team in calesthenics called “Cougar Jacks,” well, let’s just say he could have used a spell-checker.
Ready or not, football season is here for the first version of the Alleghany C-O-U-G-A-R-S.
Official fall practice began Thursday in the Virginia High School League on a history-making afternoon in the Alleghany Highlands.
Longtime prep athletics rivals Alleghany and Covington have consolidated into one “new” Alleghany High under a new central administration.
When school opens Aug. 23, the students of the two merged high schools will attend the same Alleghany High building previously used, while the old Covington High will serve as the division’s middle school.
The consolidated school’s sports teams will have new school colors, a new logo and new uniforms.
Covington is bringing its “Cougars” nickname, but when the 2023 VHSL season starts, it will be the first time since at least 1920 that there will be no Covington High School football team.
The populations of Alleghany County/Clifton Forge and Covington have dropped nearly 50% from their respective peaks in 1950 and 1960.
Fewer citizens means fewer high school students and fewer football players. Covington barely had 20 in uniform last September for the final game between the two rivals, a 30-6 Alleghany victory.
So with enrollment dropping, final approval was given in January 2021 for school consolidation beginning with the 2023-24 school year.
Nate Phillips is ready.
A year ago, Phillips was preparing for his junior season as a two-way starter at Covington High. Now he’s competing for a starting job at a new school with a new head coach.
“I’m excited,” he said. “Coming from Covington, we had 20 kids last year. We ended the season with like, 15. Coming out here and I see 60 people come out on the field, it’s so much different. It’s great, everybody competing for a spot.
“I’ll go in the locker room and we’ll get new stuff that we [didn’t] get at Covington. We didn’t have as much funds as we do now. I think it’s going to be great.”
Senior Matthew “Moose” Clayton is a returning starter at tight end and defensive end for Alleghany. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder said he welcomes the addition of some talented Covington skill players such as wingback Purcel Turner, quarterback Desmond Jordan and running back Neeko Jeter.
“Thankfully, everything that we were lacking last season, they’re kind of bringing to the table,” Clayton said. “Everything they were lacking, we’re bringing to the table. They didn’t have much of a line last year, while we have a great line, some big boys.
“We didn’t have many receivers. We didn’t have the ability to throw. With them, with the quarterback we’re going to have, it’s going to be nice.”
Will Fields, who is entering his fourth season as Alleghany’s head coach, is in charge of making sure the operation runs smoothly. The Charleston, West Virginia, native and former head coach at nearby Bath County High, said offseason workouts gave no telltale sign that the players came from two different programs.
“If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know,” Fields said. “These kids have played Little League [together]. They’ve played basketball. They’ve only been apart since high school.
“It’s mostly the die-hards that are hanging on, still trying to fight a little bit about it. I understand. Their school is no more. That’s hard, especially in a small community like this.
“I think the kids are ready.”
Clayton said any friction he has witnessed in the merger has not been in person.
“On social media, it’s framed as such a negative thing, lots of Facebook outrages and rants and that stuff,” he said. “I don’t know about all the logistics, but when I’m actually here with the other players and I’ve seen the parents at the meetings, it seems to be a good vibe, at least for athletics.”
The Alleghany senior wasn’t part of the Alleghany-Covington rivalry until last year when he transfered from James River High in Botetourt County. He harbored no animus against the Cougars.
“I never hated them. I wasn’t here,” he said. “I didn’t have any of the animosity. I don’t feel like the players themselves hold any animosity toward each other. I’ve hung out with a couple of the guys just to get to know them. It’s been great.”
Clayton is a native of South Africa who said he has been in the United States only seven years. He can empathize with the plight Covington’s former players might face in a new environment.
“I’ve had to come to a new school and adjust to having a new coach,” he said. “For me it wasn’t too difficult because I wasn’t ‘at home’ at James River. When I was welcomed in to this school, I was able to blend in pretty well.”
Sixty players greeted the coaching staff for Thursday’s first practice. Fields said he expects to dress 35 varsity players and 30 JV players this season.
Phillips said he believes most of his former Covington teammates who held starting jobs in 2022 will get significant playing time this fall.
“There are very few people that came from Covington that started, that aren’t going to get playing time,” Phillips said.
“Most [Covington players] came back. There are a couple kids who [are playing] golf. It is what it is. Some of them didn’t get much playing time at Covington anyway. It’s hard for them to come out here and compete with 60 other kids.”
Spreading out the workload might turn into an advantage, especially on a warm Friday night early in the year.
“Maybe we can get some kids [on the field] who aren’t two-way players,” Fields said. “If I can change a guy who was a two-way starter into a one-way starter, or maybe one-and-a-half, that only makes us better.”
Alleghany, which merged with old Clifton Forge High in 1983, has won just two VHSL playoff games in its history. From 2018 through 2021 including a shortened and delayed season because of COVID-19, the Mountaineers won just three games and lost 34.
Alleghany finished 6-5 last fall, reaching the playoffs before losing to powerful Appomattox County.
Fields said the school administration’s decision to add a weight training class as part of the daily curriculum is part of the reason for the improvement.
“That has made all the difference in the turnaround,” he said. “We’re expanding it this year. We’ll have more periods of it during the day.
“After the COVID year we had maybe four or five guys who could bench press 225 pounds. Now we’re pushing 10 that can bench press 300 pounds. That’s not much in football, but it’s a gauge of how far they’ve come.”
Covington has a significantly longer and more successful football history than Alleghany, including a 1984 VHSL Group A championship under former coach John Woodzell.
Francis “Boodie” Albert coached Covington’s program from 1946-73 and has the stadium in Covington where the team will play its home games named in his honor. The program made 11 consecutive playoff appearances under coaches Steve Dressler, Rodney Tenney and Chris Jones until the COVID-delayed season limited the team to four games in the spring of 2021.
The annual Alleghany vs. Covington game was played for ownership of the Brackman Cup, named in honor of longtime local journalist Emery Brackman. In an attempt to replicate the intensity, Alleghany and Greenbrier East High in nearby Lewisburg, West Virginia, have established a “Border Rivalry.”
Fields remains slightly skeptical.
“We’ll never be their rival,” he said of Greenbrier East. “Woodrow Wilson-Beckley is their rival. If I had to say right now, our rival right now is really James River. Rivalries happen from circumstance. You can’t create them.”
Alleghany will remain in the Three Rivers District, whose other schools are Carroll County, Floyd County, Glenvar, James River, Radford and new member Patrick County. The Cougars will compete for a postseason berth in Region 3C with schools from the Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg areas.
An eventual move out of the Three Rivers to the Staunton-based Shenandoah District isn’t an impossibility.
“The travel is long and getting longer with the addition of Patrick [County],” said Fields, who served as Alleghany’s interim athletic director at the end of the 2022-23 school year. “It’s been talked about, but right now we’ve asked to stay in the Three Rivers.”
Work remains in preparing for the consolidated school’s season opener at home Aug. 25 against Waynesboro. The scoreboards at the stadium, and the gym floor and scoreboards at the high school must be changed to reflect the new school colors (Navy blue, Columbia blue, and white).
The new colors and logos were unveiled during a ceremony in February.
“I like the colors,” Clayton said. “They’re a lot more slick, and the logo is beautiful. The uniforms are significantly better in my personal opinion.”
Phillips never expected to play football as a senior in a different uniform or walk the hallways in a different school building for that matter.
“When they finally decided to consolidate, it was the first I heard about it,” he said. “I heard rumors, but I didn’t really believe it would ever come true.
Phillips took part in two Brackman Cup victories over Alleghany, basking in the warm, postgame glow of Covington supporters. He wonders what 2023 will bring.
“It’s a different atmosphere,” the senior said. “After the game, people from Covington come on the field. To have people from your community that supportive of you. … I hope going into the new school, the community will be behind our back.”
See our previous story from February: In the Alleghany Highlands, two rival schools begin the process of merging