By Cam Huffman
Nicholas County High School head coach Gene Morris is usually packing up the jerseys, evaluating another season in the books and coming up with plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas by mid-November.
But for the first time since taking over as the Grizzlies head coach in 1997, Morris is spending a chunk of his time this week where he’s always wanted to be — the practice field.
Nicholas County has been to the playoffs before — this year’s trip as the No. 9 seed in Class AA was the fifth under Morris, in fact — but Friday night’s 31-7 road win over Ritchie County marked the first playoff victory in the program’s long and storied history.
“It’s really nice to get through the first round and into the second round,” said Morris Wednesday, looking back at the victory. “To finally crack through is a nice feeling.
“The school had never won a game in the playoffs, so it was quite an accomplishment for them to be the first to do so.
“Early in the week, we even had a couple of former players calling and wishing them the best and giving them a little encouragement to make some history. I think not only I, but a lot of people, will remember this team for a long time.”
The circumstances leading up to the historic win weren’t exactly ideal.
After winning four out of five games to improve to 6-3 and jump to No. 8 in the Class AA ratings, most of Nicholas County’s players and coaches spent the final week of the regular season shoveling snow and lighting candles.
More than two feet of the white stuff fell in Summersville as a result of the Hurricane Sandy storms, and Nicholas County schools were canceled for an entire week, with many of its citizens without power for days. The Grizzlies had no chance of even hitting the practice field, and their regular season finale with rival Richwood had to be canceled.
It was late last Monday before Morris was able to take his team back out on the turf field, and he admitted he had to shake a little rust from his players that first night.
Making matters worse, after falling one point short of hosting a first-round game, Nicholas County had to board the busses and make the 135-mile trip to Ellenboro.
“There was quite a buzz in town, but a little bit of apprehension,” said Morris, admitting that although their were plenty of crossed fingers, their were also plenty of chewed up nails.
But by the time the lights came on at No. 8 Ritchie County’s Chuck Schofield Memorial Stadium Friday, the Grizzlies were more than ready.
They started a little slow, falling behind 7-0 in the opening quarter, but Wil Mayes found the end zone with nine seconds left in the first quarter to tie the game at 7-all. Nicholas County responded with 31 straight points in what turned into a runaway in the second half.
Mayes finished with 127 yards rushing and two touchdowns, while junior quarterback Tyler Sagraves rushed for 47 yards and threw for 67 more, including a pair of touchdown passes.
The Grizzlies racked up 235 yards on the ground, while holding Ritchie County to just 98.
“We improved consistently throughout the season,” said Morris, explaining what has set this year’s team apart from any other Nicholas County squad. “We just got better each week, and their hunger and desire paid off.”
The reward for the first-round win — though some have labeled it as more of a punishment — is another road trip, this time to take on top-seeded and undefeated Wayne, the defending Class AA state champions, Friday night at 7:30 p.m.
Morris had plenty of praise for the Pioneers, but he wasn’t ready to cancel the trip and chalk the game up as a loss, either.
“It’s an opportunity,” said the veteran coach. “You can look at it like you have to play Wayne or that you get to play Wayne. We’re looking at it as an opportunity, and we’re going to go put the pads on, put our hands on the ground and do the best we can. We’re not going to back away from the challenge. It is a challenge, no doubt about it. But we’re looking forward to it.
“There’s a lot of business unfinished. We won the opening round, but there are still a couple to go.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH