(Writers note: this is a column with personal opinions from the writer)
If you start up your car in Williamson and head south on U.S. 119, you will get to a red light after the Pirate Cover Car Wash. You will turn left and head down a “snakey” two lane road. You will go through Hardy and Blackberry. You will pass numerous historical sites from the Hatfield and McCoy fued and you will turn left again at the Blackberry intersection.
As you travel along, you will have the option to turn right at a small intersection and travel up Peter Creek. The road has no markings on it and it has patches and potholes along the way. You will more than likely meet another car on this road. In this day and age, it’s usually some dope head with their mouth wide-open who just pulled past the wide spot that is the best opportunity for two cars to pass. It didn’t use to be like that; people used to pull over in the right spots.
You will travel up the road that follows a small creek that is stained white from sewage run-off and head up the mountain. At the top of that mountain, you will usually see stray dogs and you will see a cemetery on the left where a good portion of my family is buried. As you top over the mountain and head down the other side, you will come to a switch back curve that offers plenty of joy to locals who watch tractor trailer trucks get stuck there when they follow what their GPS system tells them to do. If it was 15 years ago, you would see a young blonde haired boy screaming by you on a pair of roller skates going about 20 m.p.h. with no fear in his eyes; only dreams of crossing the finish line first- that was me.
You are now on Pounding Mill Road and as you snake and wind down this road dodging car after car as they travel the “gateway to town” you will pass Lawrence Mayhorn’s house. He’s a senior on the Phelps Football Team. When you get to the intersection, you turn right and head up State Road 194. Along this road, you will pass Johnson Bottom, where little league games are played. You will pass Billy Prate Bottom and go around a curve that would scare a visitor to death. You will pass a small homestead on the right that used to sell rabbits but I’m not sure if they do anymore. You will finally reach Phelps Jo-Mart; or that’s what it used to be called.
You will pass the Community Library where almost everyone there went to library school. You will pass a Dollar Store and usually can see a hot little number climbing out of a Mustang in flip flops and sun glasses. You will pass Jacky Darrel’s small store and you will pass the intersection for State Road 604. If you continue on a little farther you will pass the church that Dewitt used to preach at, follow the creek where he wrecked one time; he was old and couldn’t see well and he just took that turn at the intersection too wide one time and drove right into the creek.
After all of this, you will see the lights and structure of Marty Casey Stadium. If you’re lucky enough you, will get to see the man the stadium is named after. It’s rewarding every single time.
At Marty Casey Stadium, with the right kind of eyes, you can see a team that wants to overcome adversity; a team that wants something better. Phelps is bad now, but not unlike many other small towns around the area; it doesn’t matter if you’re addressing Kentucky or West Virginia. Out of despair and fear many have chosen personal survival over the teachings of Christ and made it a very dangerous place. You can get run over by someone out joyriding and under the influence in the middle of the day. You are now in a town that has been taken over by the decadent and depraved. You have a very good chance of getting into a fight at the local Double-Quick with someone absolutely whacked out of their mind on prescription medication; someone who has messed their mind up so much they don’t have the capacity to think in terms of group or community- only me, me, and me again.
You’re in Phelps; a rough place for rough people. However, in this place of fear and loathing there is the possibility for change. A team, a coach, and a school have the opportunity to change things one Friday night at a time.
If you need a brief synopsis of the history of the Phelps Football Program,I am happy to oblige and will keep brevity in mind.
Phelps has always been a roll of the dice athletically. Maybe a group of good athletes ended up staying and married other good athletes who passed along good genes to future athletes. They start young and grow throughout the years; not always together, not always as a team but they always grow. Phelps had a perfect season once, back when the world of Appalachian football was single-A. Butch Joplin coached them there and they ended up losing early in the play-offs but they did have a 10-0 season once and that team picture still stands. The team has been through more coaches and changes than there is grass on its field. Every other single-A team was able to consolidate with other schools to form larger more competitive schools, but not Phelps because of its geographical location. A student from the head of Hurricane Creek cannot be bussed anywhere within the allotted time frame; within the state. Phelps is their only option unless they move to Virginia and attend Hurley High School. The years have gotten worse and worse and last year the team finished the season with no wins and only 54 total points scored during the whole season. At the final game, the players were in control because if one player quit the program folded.
Butch Joplin was the coach last season, the one who coached the perfect season, but he could not save the Hornets.
Back to the present: the high school hired former UK Wildcat defense and special teams stand-out David Jones as the new head coach. He brought with him a new coaching staff of his own built of people not from the Phelps community. Jones has been working feverishly on making big changes, some have opposed these changes but they are happening. The kids are buying into the hype and giving more effort. They had 25 players on hand at yesterday’s equipment assignment meeting. Practice for the 2016 season began this morning.
I went there and spoke to the coaches and players and this is my report.
The general consensus is the Hornets just want to win. They want that milestone over with, they want to taste victory like they have watched every other team they have faced enjoy. The Hornets are welcoming all those who are interested in helping this happen. They just want to start something different because they have been the losers for as long as they can stand.
Peyton Rife. Junior, Running Back :
“We have a big opportunity to start over here. It means a lot to us and our community, we all need a winning season. I have been lifting weights, and playing summer sports to help myself stay in shape. I really think we will do a lot better than last year,” Said Rife.
Adam Dotson. Senior, Center:
“There is a lot more of a team atmosphere here, we are all coming together and becoming close. I have been trying to do my part as a senior leader to make the team stay focused. I have been working during the off season to get bigger, faster, and stronger. We have a lot of home games this season and I think the town can really get behind that,” said Dotson. Dotson continued by saying, “We plan on keeping it simple on the offensive line this year, all of our calls, switches, and pulls will be simple until we get everyone on the same page. Who knows how far we will get and who knows where we will be by the end of the season.”
Brandon Turnmire. Sophomore, Running Back:
“We will be running a lot of the wing-t formation, which I am excited about. I have been working a lot on the off-season by lifting weights, working on my speed, and getting better hand-eye coordination. I want this team to come together and win some games. Coach Jones has helped a lot, he has been teaching us not only things on the field but off the field to,” said Turnmire.
Ronald Prater. Junior, Tight End:
“We just want to win a couple of games this year, I’m not going to get too far ahead here and say that everything is going to change but we want to improve from last year. We are going to beat Jenkins this year, that’s one thing that will change. Everyone has a positive attitude this year and we have been keeping each other in check and not letting each other slip,” said Prater.
Zack White. Senior, Tackle:
“This year we have coaches who want the best for us, we have players who want to play. We have new everything and I’m expecting a good year for us,” said White.
Kendrick Prater. Junior, Wide Reciever:
“We are going to widen out the field this year, we have a lot more speed and we are going to use it. I have been doing my best during the off season to prepare for this and our new offense. We are going to have a better over-all team and we need the community to get back in it,” said Prater.
Terrance Pruitt, offensive coordinator:
“ I’m excited as can be to get into this. We are going to simplify it for these kids. I grew up in Matewan and played there and I know the wing-t offense. We will have a wing-t , pistol hybrid offense. Everything we run will be in a series; we have our base plays that are our foundation but all of the others will be in a series so if you can run the basic play then you will have no problem running that same play with a little more added to it, a different route or to a different side, we are going simple and I know it’s going to work,” said Pruitt.
Pruitt continued by saying, “We have a lot of speed this year and a good offensive line, I may sound biased here but from what I have seen, the sky is the limit with our offense. We have a great quarterback competition going on with Tyson White, Garret Clevenger, and Cory Stump; these kids have really been pushing each other. Brandon Turnmire will be a big help offensively, the kid has so much talent, and we just have to get him settled into it. Anything less than six wins this season will be an absolute disappointment to me because I can see how good these kids can be and I see how much effort they are putting into this; they give me a lot of hope and I can’t hide it.”
I have to admit one of my own mistakes. I was caught up in the hype as much as anyone when Jones was announced as the new head coach of the Hornets and I gave him credit for things that was not his doing. The schedule the Hornets will be playing this year is the schedule set up by last year’s coach; it was also last year’s coach who made the decision to move the team out of district play. I gave Coach Jones credit for those moves when it was not his doing.
“Those were not my decisions but we have to go with them. I can see how it will be beneficial to the players to have an easier schedule during this transition period but I don’t believe we will grow properly as a team and as a program by taking the easy road. These kids have been kicked around and left out enough. We are going to change that. They deserve the right to play with the Pikevilles and the Hazards. Those players are no better than our kids and I am here to show them that. I am here to show them that they have all they need inside of themselves to be better than anyone ever gave them credit for. You don’t get better by playing easy games, you don’t get better taking the easy road,” said Jones.
The last person I talked to, I decided to save for last on this column; for effect. His name was Lawrence Mayhorn. He grew up on Pounding Mill Road, the same as me. Mayhorn has been the fullback for the last three years and he is entering his senior season with the Hornets. I couldn’t help but feel close to the kid, once we talked about who ‘our people’ were I determined somewhere along the line we are probably related. He had a very familiar face and I have to admit I listened a little bit more closely when he talked.
Lawrence had a very calm turn about him; he set there like the weight of everything was pushing down on his shoulders. He didn’t laugh and he didn’t speak with a lot of flash. He simply answered my question with, “I am ready to do whatever my team needs me to do.”
Lawrence said he had played football every year since he was in first grade. He spoke well of his coach by saying, “Coach Jones has changed a lot of things here, he will be a big part of what we are going to accomplish this year. I know we are actually going to win some games this year. We have a really good turnout and I am appreciative of everyone who has shown support of this team and what we are trying to do.” I sat back for a minute and thought wow; that was a big league answer from a minor league player.
I asked a Lawrence to tell me what it has been like at Phelps over the last three years, he had no problem answering me. “During my freshman year we were talented but chaotic, we couldn’t bring it together. We took beating after beating and it was tough. I started during my sophomore year and that was hard because I was tiny, I was only 130 lbs. I believe. We were all over the place, we had no unity. Last year everyone just quit, no one wanted to play anymore and it was real tough on me because I did want to play. All I can say about this upcoming year is I am thrilled to have a real field to play on and I’m thrilled to have the team that we do this year.”
The Hornets may not make it this year, there is a big possibility that they can fall flat on their face and the storm clouds may roll in once again. This year could turn out to be just like every other year. But, with the right kind of eyes you can already see the changes being made that will set a new standard. The Hornets need one win, and then they need a winning season; after that, who knows what will be possible.
(William plaster is the sports reporter for the Williamson Daily News, he can be reached at 304-235-4242 ext. 2274 or at firstname.lastname@example.org on on twitter @sidplaster.)