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It's not quite the Hatfields and McCoys, but anytime the Oliver Springs Bobcats and Coalfield Yellow Jackets lock horns on the gridiron a good-old fashioned slobber-knocker can be expected between the two long-time bitter rivals that are separated by just five miles.
Former Oliver Springs head coach Frank Johnson and former Coalfield head coach Garry Kreis have been involved in a lot of those “Big Mountain Brawl” games over the years, and they say there is nothing like this Friday night when Coalfield visits Oliver Springs at D.J. Brittan Field.
“It's a family feud; we're close enough to throw rocks at 'em,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of games that you play that are big games, but you don't ever see those guys again. Part of Oliver Springs is in Morgan County and we see these guys every day. It means so much more when you beat people you know than when you beat strangers.”
“Everyone in Oliver Springs is kin to someone from Coalfield and everyone from Coalfield is kin to someone from Oliver Springs,” Kreis added. “Plus our boys date their girls and their boys date our girls. It's always been like this and that's why this is the game for both schools.”
Kreis is one of the few that have experienced the rivalry from both sides. Kreis is regarded as perhaps the best player ever at Oliver Springs, but he spent nearly 30 years on the sidelines at Coalfield as an assistant coach or head coach for the Yellow Jackets. And although retired from coaching, Kreis is still a teacher at Coalfield and will be pulling for the orange and black Friday night.
“It's rough on me when they play. It was especially tough when we played back at Oliver Springs,” Kreis said. “Nobody ever wore the purple and gold with more pride than me, and I have so many great memories at Oliver Springs. I love Oliver Springs 51 weeks a year, but I'll be pulling for Coalfield in this one.”
While Kreis and Johnson both played at Oliver Springs and grew up around the rivalry, current coaches Keith Henry of Coalfield came from Oneida while Oliver Springs' Wiley Brackett is from Kingston, and neither knew the rivalry was so intense.
“Before I got here as Garry's assistant I never realized how big of a game it was, but I learned real quick,” Henry said. “I love history and this rivalry goes back a lot of years. You can go back and talk to players that played in the 50s and 60s and this is they game they all talk about.”
“I didn't know how big it was,” Brackett added. “But when you start getting calls at home and at school the week of the game you know that it's a big-time game.”
This year's contest has been as hyped as any over the years. Both teams entered the season picked by most experts to finish first and second in District 4-A. Both enter Friday's contest with identical 1-0 records in league play and they have split their last six meetings with the home team winning each time.
Johnson and Kreis agree that the game is huge, but it won't make either team play any harder Friday night.
“People are always trying to do things to fire up the kids this week, but they don't need anything extra to play this game,” Johnson said. “If you can't get ready to play Coalfield in football then you need to be playing another sport.”
“You can throw out the records and scores when Oliver Springs and Coalfield play,” Kreis added. “I've been involved in games where we didn't have as much talent and played them close, and I've been in games where we've had more talent and they've played us close. There's just so much emotion in this game that it always seems close.”
A perfect example of how close those games can be is the 1979 battle between the Bobcats and Jackets. The Bobcats went 10-0 that season and eventually lost to Maryville in the playoffs, but the game of the year was a five-overtime thriller between Coalfield and Oliver Springs that the Bobcats eventually won 20-14.
“It was my first year at Coalfield as an assistant,” Kreis said. “They had a heck of a ball club and the game went into five overtimes. It just shows what can happen when we play.”
“We went 10-0 that year,” Johnson added. “We beat Kingston that year, but Coalfield was our toughest game. They had a good team.”
With community bragging rights on the line every time the teams meet, Johnson and Kreis said one thing both teams will have to control Friday night is their emotions.
“You try to treat it like it's just another game, but the kids know different,” Kreis said. “I always tried to keep it low-key and try to build day-by-day like any other game. If you win, it's a huge win and you're elated, but you have to remember there's another game next week and you have to get them focused again.”
“You try to prepare for the game the same as any other, but it's tough to do because they know what it means,” Johnson added. “It's probably the least amount of talking I had to do before a game because they knew what they had to do.”
Friday's contest will no doubt be emotional and hard-hitting, but both Henry and Brackett agree that the winner will be the team that executes the best.
“They've got 22 or 23 seniors this year with a lot of starts under their belt,” Henry said of Oliver Springs. “We'll have to prepare well all week, control the line of scrimmage and not make a lot of mistakes. Special teams will also play a big role Friday night.
“Coalfield went to the fourth round of the playoffs last year and they beat us 20-0,” Brackett said. “That tells you how mentally and physically prepared they were and I expect the same from them this year. We'll have to be on top of our game and we can't afford any mistakes. It will probably come down to whichever team has the ball last.”
Johnson and Kreis also agree on one more thing about Friday's game, and that's that both teams will do their talking on the field.
“Both teams want to win and it's an intense rivalry, but both teams will play with class,” Johnson said. “We've never had any problems with Coalfield. Every now and then somebody will get a wild hair and do something they shouldn't, but these games are always pretty clean.”