RACHEL — North Marion High football coach Daran Hays jumps to the conclusion of the point, fully aware of the oncoming suggestion, be it true, partially true, or flat-out false. Huskies junior quarterback Brody Hall, meanwhile, nods along with the retracing of the same narrative, acknowledging it as if he’s already heard it.
In Rachel, from the coaching staff to the players, probably even to the Rachel Rowdies themselves, Huskies Nation knows where North Marion football stands as a program: Good, but not great.
There’s certainly no shame in settling in as a good, quality program season to season — especially considering where the North was as recently as six years ago — but there’s also certainly no intrinsic reward in being comfortable there. Eventually, every program strives for more. Eventually, every program strives for greatness.
And for North Marion — a playoff team in three of the last five seasons and right on the fringe in the other two — there’s no more direct pathway to greatness than what lies before them this Friday: A state quarterfinal showdown against Class AA behemoth and No. 2 Bluefield.
“We’ve played Fairmont Senior and Robert C. Byrd obviously, and, up until this year, Bridgeport, and Frankfort this year was really outstanding, but we’ve never played Bluefield,” Hall said. “We know they’re a great team that has a lot of talent and a lot of speed, and normally they have a handful of guys go D-I every year. So we’re excited to see where we’re at and go down there and play in the nicest stadium on the East Coast against some of the state’s best talent.”
Bluefield represents Class AA’s perennial power as participants in each of the past three state title games and a storied program that includes 11 all-time state championships. Under legendary coach Fred Simon, now in his 35th season, the Beavers have five state championships, 12 state title game appearances, 24 playoff appearances, and a 54-18 postseason record (.750).
That’s what the Huskies will be contending with Friday night as they try to make the leap from good to great, as they try, yet again, to produce the defining victory of Hays’ now 12-year tenure as head coach.
“It’s obviously a great challenge,” Hays said. “We want to be in these games more often, and unfortunately, we haven’t been. We were able to get in really three or four big, quality games this year and we weren’t real successful in any of them, but we were competitive in them, which gives you a little bit of relief.”
That sliver of candor from Hays in regards to the Huskies’ performances against the state’s top-tier teams really gets to the heart of what North Marion has been the past five seasons or so since Hays resurrected what was a downtrodden program when he took over as head man in 2009. For all that Hays and the Huskies have accomplished by way of their dedication and commitment through the years — a 2016 playoff berth that snapped a 13-year drought, back-to-back playoff appearances in 2019 and again this season in 2020, a renewed and rock-solid culture of togetherness and toughness — a marquee, touchstone victory has eluded them.
They’re 0-2 under Hays in the playoffs — well technically 1-2 now after last week’s victory by forfeit — losing to Point Pleasant in 2016 and Poca in 2019 despite scrappy efforts as No. 14-seeded underdogs. They’ve never conquered either of the Big 10 Conference giants in Fairmont Senior nor Bridgeport in their annual regular season showdowns. They did finally beat Robert C. Byrd for the first time in school history last season — a possible breakthrough — but then backslid the very next week in an ugly game against Liberty that likely cost them what would’ve been the program’s first home playoff game since 2001. They lost swing games to Braxton County in 2017 and Lewis County in 2018 that put them outside of the playoffs.
And then this season, they lost to three playoff teams in the top half of the Class AA field in No. 8 RCB, No. 6 Fairmont Senior and No. 3 Frankfort.
“We were in the Byrd game until the final possession, and in the Fairmont Senior game we felt good about a lot of the things that we did but we left some points on the board and gave up some big plays, and then the Frankfort game, I thought we kind of laid an egg honestly — we didn’t play very well,” Hays said. “But again, being in (big games) is the first step, and we’re starting to be in them. But Bluefield’s been in a ton of them.”
“Technically we won a playoff game (last week), but we’re not happy to have advanced the way we have against Keyser, and that sucks for them and all of the teams that don’t get to play,” Hall said. “We obviously aren’t satisfied with just making it to the quarterfinals, especially by forfeit.
“We’re really hungry.”
Those setbacks, for as painful as they’ve been, are also a testament to the Huskies and how far they’ve come as a program to the point that they hold so much weight.
Hays and his coaching staff have dug deep and gotten creative in resetting the program’s culture, from upgrading team facilities to implementing in-house leadership programs. It’s fostered a mutual respect and genuine love between players and coaches that has paid dividends on the field.
“I think we’re a lot closer as teammates because of the stuff we do off the field; we really care about each other a lot and we really care about our coaches a lot, and we try to play hard for each other,” Hall said. “If we rip into each other a little bit, we know it’s just tough love; we just want to get the best out of each other, and when we don’t get the best out of each other, we let each other know and normally that fixes it pretty quick.
“We love each other like brothers, coaches and players. We have a really tight bond.”
The players themselves, meanwhile, have invested full throttle in offseason weight training and spend more leisure time hanging out in the locker room, snack room, etc. This season, especially, they’ve grinded through the uncertainties of COVID-19 with unwavering commitment, Hays said.
“We got guys who during the summer, they’re working 40 hour weeks and then rolling in here and practicing every day,” Hays said.
And on the field, North Marion has maximized the means of its talent by blending scheme with skill set.
Year in and year out, the Huskies always seem to have a new batch of gritty two-way lineman — dudes like Garrett Conaway, Jake Cochran, Chase Duckworth, and Kaden Hovatter this season — and a set of instinctual linebackers — Brock Troy and Tyler Curry. They always deploy a handful of playmakers and skill guys, with one in particular spooking defenses every week with their game-breaking abilities — wide receiver Tariq Miller — and have a dual threat quarterback to engineer it all — Hall.
Still, when one starts to measure the Huskies’ collective size and talent against the state’s true heavyweights, NMHS will generally enter as the underdog; toughness and scrap can compensate to an extent, but for North to truly crest the next level requires a dose of schematic novelty. That’s where the Huskies’ marriage between new-age concepts, such as run-pass option looks and spread formations, and old-school principles, such as physicality and toughness along both the offensive and defensive fronts, enters into the equation.
“I think the brand of football we have to play here has always got to meet some level of physicality, because the one thing about the kids we get here is they’re blue-collar, hard-working kids — they’re from families that go to work from 9-5 and work overtime and then they themselves are also working,” Hays said. “So I think you have to build around that first and foremost, but then you also have to look at your skill set and see the things that you can do, and I think the RPO game on the offensive side has really given us a dimension and identity that differentiates us from most everybody else around here.”
North Marion has put all the pieces — from the program’s culture, to the team’s work ethic, to the schematic nuance — into place, and now, as the No. 10-seeded Huskies head to Mitchell Stadium to face the No. 2-ranked Beavers in search of an ever elusive landmark victory for the program, it’s true gut-check time.
“This is really the point where you separate the men from the boys,” said Cochran, North’s senior center and defensive tackle. “We’ll have to play some of our best football.”