“We talked to them as two teams and right then said at this point forward, we’re all basically the same team,” said Clay Central and former Lineville coach Steve Giddens. “The first day of spring training, on May 7, we talked to them and explained we weren’t Ashland and we weren’t Lineville anymore when we stepped on this football field, and that’s the way we were going to treat it.”
The county rivals played 102 times starting in 1922, including five times in the playoffs, with two contests taking place in the semifinals and the 1996 state championship coming down to the Panthers and the Aggies.
Both programs having success fueled the rivalry even more. Clay County had won six state titles since 1994, including the 1996 finale, and Lineville had won 16 region championships since 1989.
“It was intense for a lot of reasons,” Giddens said. “I think there in the ’90s and early 2000s it went up a couple of notches because both teams were good pretty much every year. We met each other in the playoffs quite a few times, and when you measure yourself against the other team in your county, it’s just a close, personal thing because most of you are kin to someone in Ashland or you went to school in Ashland and they went to school in Lineville.”
However with Clay County changing classifications several times since 2000, once it was announced the two schools would be combined in 2009, the rivalry wasn’t what it once had been.
“The kids that play, they’ve been fine with it since day one when it was announced years ago,” said Clay Central defensive coordinator and former Clay County coach Kris Herron. “Again, it comes back to in this county, football means something to these people. Whether they used to wear blue and white or red and black, they’re wearing red, white and blue and the goal is the same. They want to win football games and they want to win a state championship. I think the pride from both places has just mixed into one now and now its pride in this school and this program.”
Once the 2011 season officially ended when both teams fell in the semifinals of the playoffs, Giddens and Herron sat down and started focusing on Clay Central.
Despite hundreds of questions needing to be answered, the largest one was who was going to be the head coach of the Volunteers. With 13 seasons under his belt at Lineville, the job was Giddens’ if he chose to take it. But also being an administrator the last few years at Lineville and having a master’s degree in administrative education, Giddens had a decision to make with Clay Central being a bigger school with more responsibilities.
“I’ve been coaching all my life and I felt like it was a unique situation bringing two athletic programs together,” Giddens said about choosing to coach. “The fact that I graduated from Clay County High School and actually coached over there for a year, I felt that might help out a little bit. Basically, I just wanted to be part of the athletic program.”
With Giddens leading the first-year team and Herron as his right-hand man, the two sat down with the coaching staffs of Clay County and Lineville at the beginning of 2012 to discuss who would coach what and how things would operate.
“We began to meet with all the coaches together from both schools, trying to decide who was going to do what, what we were going to try offensively and defensively and planning for spring training,” Herron said. “(Giddens) has just done a super job blending the coaching staffs and players together.
“It all just kind of fell together. There wasn’t any overlapping of where coaches can contribute the most. We just kind of talked it out and hashed it out. It went very smooth.”
However, even as spring training arrived, the new school was several months away from being ready so the Volunteers practiced in Ashland and had their spring game and summer workouts in Lineville. On and off the field, the transition was going extremely well.
“I never felt for one moment anyone not buying in,” Giddens said. “I think, in all honesty, the players were happy to be on each other’s team. Everybody is glad to be there.”
Now entering the second round of the Class 4A playoffs, No. 2 Clay Central holds a 10-1 record — cruising through the season and winning the Region 3 title — and will face Charles Henderson on tonight in Troy.
With only one loss, a Week 10 slipup to Class 3A fifth-ranked Madison Academy, the Volunteers have dominated opponent after opponent.
And Clay Central has done it with the former rivals playing as one.
Quarterback Jamario Lyles and tailback Tyrone Cosby are two of the four former Lineville players on offense that have played important roles as Clay Central has averaged 41 points per game, along with the help of former Clay County players like fullback Travis Smith. The defense is allowing an average of 9.36 points per game, as well.
Clay Central has made coaches, players and fans overcome a fierce rivalry dating back nine decades to support one cause. With fans coming together to fill the stands for every home game, the Volunteers have given a reason for them to cheer each week.
“The transition has been better than anybody could ever hope for,” Giddens said. “People are getting along and everybody is happy. They’re just happy.”
Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.