By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
After years of silence on the topic, Woodrow Wilson High School football coach John H. Lilly has decided it’s time to speak up.
“We would love to play Shady,” the coach said Thursday.
Luckily for Lilly, Shady Spring head coach Vince Culicerto feels the same way.
“We want to play them,” Culicerto said. “It will happen. I guarantee you that. It will happen.”
The two Raleigh County coaches were speaking in response to comments made by legendary Marshall University coach and Woodrow Wilson football hall of famer Bob Pruett, suggesting that the Flying Eagles and Tigers need to meet in football.
“I agree 100 percent with Coach Pruett,” Lilly said. “I mean, I don’t see why we’re not playing them now. It’s been a year since they’ve moved up (to Class AAA), and we most definitely want to play.”
Lilly, a Bluefield native, compared the potential of a rivalry between the two schools to the heated rivalry between Bluefield and Graham (Va.) High School.
The Bluefield-Graham game is held annually at Mitchell Stadium and often draws crowds of more than 10,000 people. It has been featured on ESPN as one of the top high school rivalries in the country.
“I think it would be great for both schools,” added Lilly. “I’d like to open the season with them, like Bluefield and Graham do, and split the gate. I don’t see a reason why we’re not playing.”
It’s been long rumored that the reason the two schools would not agree to play was due to Lilly’s reluctance. Lilly left Shady Spring after nine years to take the Woodrow Wilson job in 2000 after longtime coach, and Vince’s father, Pete Culicerto retired.
“I don’t think that’s an issue,” Lilly said. “I’ve been gone for 13 years. I’m not going to be negative or mean, I just think it would be a great rivalry, and, for whatever reasons, we’re not playing. We want to. We have never said we did not want to play. From the athletic department to the coaching staff, we are all in agreement. We want to play Shady.”
“You don’t want to get out there and start throwing rumors around,” Culicerto added. “You hear the rumors. It’s been one of these deals where I haven’t said a word to anybody about it. I haven’t gave my piece to anybody.”
In fact, the two sides have tried in the past to make the game work, but they weren’t able to come to an agreement.
“I think folks don’t understand. It’s not something you can make happen with the snap of a finger,” Culicerto said. “You’ve got to get your schedule in line.”
Culicerto said he was alerted to the fact that Shady would move to Class AAA during the Tigers 2011 playoff run. He instantly got on the phone.
“I was on the phone the same day I found out trying to find games while trying to get ready for a semifinal,” he said. “I knew if I was late on the boat, I would miss out.”
Culicerto said he contacted all area AAA schools and was able to work out an agreement with Greenbrier East and Princeton, but he was unable to work out a deal with Lilly and the Flying Eagles, due to scheduling concerns.
“This past season it was a definite,” he said. “I talked with Coach Lilly to see if they had any openings and there weren’t any because of their deal with the MSAC. The schedule was set.”
Culicerto is no stranger to Woodrow schedules. His dad Pete served as the Flying Eagles head coach from 1978-1999, when he retired, opening the door for Lilly to take the helm.
“I love Coach Culicerto. He’s been good to me. Vince worked for me for five years,” Lilly said. “It’s nothing personal at all between us.”
Lilly also made it clear that the Flying Eagles are willing to go to great lengths to make the game possible.
“We’d love to split the gates with them,” he said. “I think it would financially be a big game that could help supplement both athletic programs.
“We would buy out contracts if we need to,” he added. “We have those resources in place to make this game possible.”
While both Culicerto and Lilly are willing to make the game possible, it doesn’t appear Shady Spring has any plans of doing so in the near future.
“Currently our schedule is full,” Shady Spring principal Danny Moye said. “We are interested in AAA schools that match our school’s profile as far as the number of students. Perhaps as our school grows, maybe somewhere in the future we could see something coming together. There’s a tremendous difference in the number of students that the two schools have.”
There is a substantial size difference between Shady Spring and Woodrow Wilson High Schools. According to the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission, Woodrow Wilson has 1,356 students while Shady Spring has an enrollment of 836 students.
The Tigers’ football team, though, will play Class AA Liberty with an enrollment of 553 students and will travel 258 miles to take on Musselman on the final week of the 2013 regular season.
Musselman has an enrollment of 1,571 students, the eighth-largest school in the state.
Culicerto insists that game was just a matter of getting his team to 10 games.
“I called schools in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky. I wanted to get our guys that 10th game,” Culicerto said. “They deserve that.
“But would I rather be playing Woodrow Wilson than driving five hours to Musselman? Absolutely. I think it’d be great.”
That’s a statement with which Lilly can agree.
“I do think it would be fun,” he said. “The kids would get jacked up for it. It would be nothing but positive.”
— E-mail: jrollins
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.