Leading up to their respective state championship games, Nicki McClure read her Stuarts Draft volleyball team a story from Exodus in the Bible, Jarrett Hatcher read the Lee High boys basketball team “Casey at the Bat,” and Lee girls coach Jeremy Hartman read his players an email he had received from the Stanford women’s basketball coach.
All three teams lost.
Of course, no one is blaming Moses, Ernest Thayer or Tara VanDerveer, but maybe, just to be safe, Riverheads coach Robert Casto will want to stay away from reading anything before Saturday’s 1A state football championship.
That shouldn’t be a problem. Casto doesn’t strike most as the poetry-reading type anyway.
Jeremy Heizer was part of the Riverheads football team that won it all in 2006. What Casto told his team before that game was nothing new to the players.
“He gave us the same speech every day,” said Heizer. “He always would say ‘We do what we do. Do your job, do your assignments and the rest will take care of itself.'”
Chances are this year’s group of Riverheads players will hear similar words before taking the field Saturday against Sussex Central in Salem. “We do what we do,” five words that Casto loves to say to anyone who asks what his plan of attack is for any particular game. What it seems like Riverheads does is win championships. Since 2000 the Gladiators have won three state titles. They’ll be going for number four under Casto Saturday.
Heizer doesn’t believe anything said in the locker room before that game Saturday will matter. He knows from experience that the players will be ready before they ever get on the bus to head to Salem.
“There is just something about him that is motivational, but it’s quiet,” Heizer said. “Most people who motivate, motivate from things that they say. But there’s something about him that motivated us every day and it wasn’t the words.”
By the time a team reaches the state championship, the we-do-what-we-do mentality is helpful. Teams can get some idea about what the opponent will do from watching film, but the best strategy is to focus on your team’s strengths and hope that’s enough to carry you to victory.
“In practice we prepared as best as we could,” said Lee High’s MacKensie Bowles, whose volleyball team played for a state championship just a few weeks ago. “We worked on our weak spots.”
The one big difference Bowles saw the week leading up to the championship match and other games throughout the season was that the players were more serious.
“Our practices can sometimes involve goofing off and stuff like that,” Bowles said. “But preparing for that game we knew that we had to crack down and just save the goofiness until after.”
Playing for a state championship is the dream of every high school athlete. Not many get a chance to experience it. Even fewer get that chance to win one.
Riverheads football played for a state title last season, but came up short. The players who returned this season hope to get a taste of winning this time. It’s not always easy to get that chance at redemption, but some teams do.
In 2014, Riverheads boys soccer lost in the state championship game. Two years later, the Gladiators returned to the state title game and, this time, won it all. It helped that the team’s star, James Kasak was much more experienced in 2016, his senior year.
Experience helps. Lee High girls basketball had one of the best players this area has ever seen in Angela Mickens, but had to suffer through losing in the finals twice before finally winning it all in 2012 in Mickens’ senior year.
The team’s coach, Jeremy Hartman, was also more experienced at leading a team into the championship. He learned lessons in the losses that he used to his advantage. Hartman tweaked things every year until he finally got that state title.
The first year, when Mickens was a freshman, the Lee Ladies traveled to Richmond the morning of the game. It didn’t go well. The players were tired from a bus trip that began that morning at 6:30 and, by the time they were fully awake, it was too late. Freedom beat Lee by 25.
After that, Hartman vowed to travel to Richmond, site of the state semifinals and championship games, the day before. He arranged to practice at the University of Richmond, then he took the players to his parents’ house and his mom cooked dinner for the team.
“That was our routine from then on,” Hartman said. “It helped ease the kids’ minds and gave them a night of rest and allowed them to have somewhat of a normal morning routine.”
Routine is big with coaches. Most don’t like to rock the boat, even during the week of a state championship game. But who are we kidding?
“I am not sure that you can convince any teenager that has invested all that they had to go and win a state championship, that it is just another game,” said Jeremiah Major, who coached Wilson Memorial in the state finals in 2014.
Major believes in routine as much as any coach, but he also wanted his players to enjoy the experience. They had earned it. So the week before the game, he arranged for them to practice at James Madison University. That was huge.
One thing that helped the Hornets prepare for the title game was that it had played some big games that season already. The Wilson-Riverheads rivalry during that time was as big as any high school rivalry in the area. Major said games like that helped his team understand what they faced in Salem.
Pickle Nuckols agrees. He was a big part of the Buffalo Gap football team that won a state championship in 2007. Leading up to that win over Clintwood, Gap played Colonial Beach and William Campbell in the playoffs.
“By the time we got to the state championship game we had played in so many big games, really through our whole career, that the shock factor of playing in front of that big crowd, we didn’t have that,” Nuckols said. “We didn’t have the deer-in-the-headlights look.”
Nuckols said he had tunnel vision throughout most of that state championship game, not really enjoying it until late in the game. He remembers scoring on a 10-yard run with less than two minutes left that sealed the win.
“That’s when I finally looked up into the crowd and kind of started taking it in a little bit,” Nuckols said.
Riverheads has played in a lot of big games this year also, including winning on the road at Galax last Saturday. Those Riverheads players hope that experience pays off and, like Nuckols, sometime last Saturday afternoon they can take that same look into the crowd in Salem and enjoy a championship.