Back in its very first season, Riverside came oh-so-close to a state football championship. And now, 20 years later, that’s still as close as the Warriors have come.
It took an improbable ending to deny Riverside a Class AAA state title back in 1999 as Parkersburg wrested victory from disastrous defeat with a 31-28 Super Six decision at Wheeling Island Stadium.
That game remains one of the most memorable in Wheeling Super Six history, as well as one of the most painful ever for the Warriors, who were playing their first season as a consolidation of eastern Kanawha County powers DuPont and East Bank.
Riverside fell behind 24-0 at halftime, only to somehow rally into a 28-24 lead with 4:15 left in the game, bunching three TDs into a span of just 68 seconds. However, that only set up what proved to be the coming-out party for Parkersburg sophomore quarterback Marc Kimes, who led his team 86 yards in eight plays for the winning touchdown, a 10-yard toss to Nathan Fields with 1:19 remaining.
It marked the first of many prime-time performances from Kimes, who took the Big Reds to the AAA finals three straight years (1999-2001), winning two titles and capturing the Kennedy Award as the state’s top player as a senior. He went 38-4 as a starting QB and was especially a tormentor of the Warriors, who were eliminated three straight years in the playoffs by Kimes and the Big Reds.
Dick Whitman, Riverside’s coach at the time, won five of his first six regular-season games against Parkersburg, but was 0-4 against the Big Reds in the postseason between 1999-2003.
“I remember him telling me he was glad to see the Kimes kid graduate,’’ said Rick Whitman, the baseball coach and athletic director at St. Albans and son of Dick Whitman, who died in 2015. “He lost a couple of heartbreakers to him in the playoffs.’’
The 1999 title game is one folks will talk about for a long time on both sides.
Parkersburg, also known as TitleTown for its long-running athletic success, was seeking its first state football championship since 1978; Riverside brought together two programs that were all about football and championships. DuPont claimed back-to-back AAA crowns in 1992-93 under Dick Whitman and made the AA finals in 1998, its last year of existence, losing 20-17 to Kennedy Award winner Quincy Wilson and Weir. Four of East Bank’s seven titles were also recent, coming between 1989-1996.
For much of the 1999 AAA championship game, contested on the pre-artificial turf grass field at Wheeling Island, the Big Reds dominated, building that 24-0 lead by halftime and holding the Warriors to 53 total yards through 21/2 quarters. But two long pass plays ignited the comeback for Riverside in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Josh Patrick shrugged off a swollen ankle to hook up with Michael Terrell on a 75-yard play and Karl Booker on a 47-yarder to make it 24-21. When Chris Fletcher recovered a fumble at the Big Reds 13 on the next possession, the Warriors were in business again and Terrell tallied on the ensuing play to put Riverside up 28-24 with 4:15 remaining.
Dick Whitman said that day that he wasn’t surprised by his team’s lightning-like rally. The Warriors lost three regular-season games and were seeded just 10th in the final AAA playoff ratings, but played a strong schedule, were averaging better than 32 points and had already avenged one of their regular-season losses by whipping Capital 41-7 in the playoff semifinals.
“When we came out of that locker room for the second half,’’ he said, “I told them we could get 24 points. We got 27 points in one quarter last week against a pretty good [Capital] team. When you look at the scoreboard and it says 24-0, all you can do is play the next play.’’
At halftime, Parkersburg didn’t exactly feel like it had the game in hand, either.
“We weren’t having delusions of grandeur that this thing was over with,’’ said former Big Reds coach Marshall Burdette, who now lives in South Carolina. “We knew Riverside wouldn’t take that sitting down, and they didn’t. It’s a credit to Dick and the players they had. At least from a coaching standpoint, we felt this thing was not over at halftime. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
“I think kids are kids. A lot of our kids thought it was over at halftime, and for a while I think it hurt our performance there. We knew we had to wake up because [Riverside] was not going to let us walk away. They were too good of a football team.’’
Enter the diminutive Kimes, who was just starting to write the script of a long and illustrious career. At only 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds and 15 years old, he didn’t let his teammates hang their heads after blowing a large lead. And he didn’t care that the Big Reds were more known for their smash-mouth, run-oriented wing-T offense. He got the green light to wing it himself, and momentum careened back the other way.
Kimes went 4 of 4 passing on the winning drive for 63 yards, including a 35-yard fourth-down connection with Cam Slaughter that Riverside’s players and coaches contested, saying the ball hit the ground as Slaughter dived for the catch. Three plays later, Kimes found Fields for the lead with just 79 seconds left in the game.
It was the third TD toss of the game for Kimes, who ended up 11 of 17 passing for 206 yards.
“I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe a 15-year-old is doing this,’ ” Burdette said following the game.
With nearly 20 years to reflect, Burdette still kicks himself for some of the play calls made in the second half.
“We weren’t a passing team,’’ he said. “Now we were blessed with young men like [receivers] Nathan Fields and Isaac Weaver. We could do it, we just didn’t do it. It was more of a philosophical choice. We certainly found we had to do that to beat them. We couldn’t be one-dimensional. We had to open it up to win the game.
“I think we got too conservative, and that was my fault and we lost the lead late in the game. It was the type of game we thought it would be, 31-28. But we thought it would go 7-7, 14-14, 21-21 and not the way it went.’’
From Riverside’s perspective, the second half was even more agonizing.
“It rips your heart out when you come back from 24-0 to lose,’’ Dick Whitman said afterward. “But it’s football. It’s a strange game. It’s all about emotion and momentum.’’
Ralph Hensley, the former East Bank coach with four state championships to his credit, served as Whitman’s offensive coordinator at Riverside in 1999. Hensley still carries disappointment about the title game, but knows the Warriors gave their full effort.
“It was a tough game,’’ said Hensley, who retired from coaching in 2011. “You look back and you think, ‘Yeah, we could have won that.’ Anytime you turned around, [things changed]. You had to play really hard all the time, and we did play hard. Sometimes you play hard and you just don’t win. Our guys never gave up. They worked really hard, and did everything we asked them to.’’
Rick Whitman, who attended the game 20 years ago, said the outcome never really lingered with his father.
“Dad was pretty much the same whether he won the state championship or got beat in heartbreaking fashion,’’ Rick Whitman said. “He was kind of even keel. I think he was proud of the guys battling and coming back and giving themselves a chance to win. It came down to a play here or a play there.’’
Riverside received some solace from Burdette, who realizes how fleeting success can be in the state finals.
“Through my years as an assistant or head coach,’’ Burdette said, “we’ve been blessed to win a few, but we’ve been on the short end in a couple of championship games. It’s never a good feeling. You lost the last game and you don’t get to play again until next August. The worst thing about it is the seniors don’t get another chance. Coaches get another chance, and the kids who are coming back for the next season, but the seniors don’t.’’
Parkersburg kept right on rolling after that unforgettable contest, reaching the Super Six finals again in 2000, 2001, 2006 and 2007, winning three of those four games. Unfortunately for Riverside, there have been no more trips back to Wheeling Island Stadium.
The Warriors had some chances right after that 1999 title-game loss, getting to the playoff semifinals in 2001, 2002 and 2004. The last two setbacks in that group came to Morgantown, but the 2001 meeting with Parkersburg also carried some sting.
Riverside had never lost at Warrior Stadium before the 2001 semifinals, going 12-0 at its home field. But it suffered five turnovers that day in a 31-24 loss to the Big Reds. Included in the barrage was a 53-yard fumble return for a TD by Parkersburg’s Eric Workman with 1:21 left, giving the Big Reds a 31-16 lead.
Down 24-16 and driving to perhaps tie the game, Riverside threw a short toss in the flat from the Parkersburg 39 that went behind the receiver and fell to the ground. Most players on both teams thought it was an incomplete pass and even Workman was in slow motion when he picked up the ball. Realizing the play hadn’t been whistled dead, he began running and didn’t stop until he hit the end zone.
Kimes intercepted a pass with 24 seconds left to end the drama. After the game, according to Parkersburg superfan Ed Forshey, Whitman told Kimes, “the next time I see you, it better be a picture of you graduating.’’ Kimes dutifully sent Whitman an invitation to Parkersburg’s graduation that spring and Whitman sent Kimes a card.
Hard luck has been about the only kind of luck the Warriors have seen since. After appearing in 16 playoff games through their first six seasons, they have played in but one postseason game over the last 14 years. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2007, Hensley’s first year as head coach after Dick Whitman stepped down following the 2006 season.
Riverside endured a 24-game losing streak between the 2013-15 seasons and now employs its fourth different head coach since 2011. Alex Daugherty went 1-9 last year in his first season at the Quincy school.
Folks around the Kanawha Valley have long wondered what it will take to get Riverside’s football program moving again in the right direction.
“I don’t really know,’’ Hensley said. “You have to get people to buy into the program. I know they have a young guy now who’s very enthusiastic, and I’m sure he’ll try to ask them to do a lot of things. I hope they do and I hope they listen to him. You’ve got to be tough and work your tails off and listen to him. If you don’t work, you’re just not going to win.
“And you have to hit the weight room, I don’t care what people say. Some people don’t need it, but for some people, it can make their life change. I think you need a weight room, and Riverside has a very good weight room, so I hope they can do it.’’
Rick Whitman doesn’t recall his father ever speculating on what Riverside needed to regain its early mojo.
“He had some really good teams,’’ Rick Whitman said. “Obviously, he was kind of frustrated not being able to get over the Parkersburg hump. But he always thought Riverside would have a great football program. You put East Bank and DuPont together — why wouldn’t you?’’