Sometimes in West Virginia high school athletics, things don’t change much in 10 years. Sometimes, there are seismic shifts in certain sports.
One of those tumultuous times began in 2010 with the infamous brawl at the end of South Charleston’s Class AAA playoff quarterfinal win against Hurricane. The repercussions of that fight, which resulted in the ejection and suspension of five SC players, resonated for three weeks due to a string of legal actions and produced plenty of bad feelings, as well as one of the strangest endings to a prep football season in state history.
South Charleston became perhaps the first defending champion to see its season and a shot at a third straight title wiped out by a court ruling. The final time Black Eagles players left the field, they did so as 29-28 winners against Brooke in the AAA semifinals. Ten days later, following a State Supreme Court ruling, they had to forfeit that victory for using ineligible players, and Brooke took on Martinsburg in the Super Six championship game that was delayed by one week.
Gary Ray, at the time the head of the Secondary School Activities Commission, said it was one of his least favorite memories of being executive director.
“That’s for sure,’’ Ray said. “You can’t say you enjoy that kind of stuff, and I did not. It was unpleasant, but it was necessary.’’
It’s rather hard to believe now, but before the SC-Hurricane fracas erupted, Martinsburg had yet to capture a single state title in football. Coach Dave Walker’s Bulldogs were 0-4 in the finals since 2001, seemingly always the bridesmaid and never the bride, with losses to Parkersburg (twice), Morgantown and Parkersburg South by margins of six to 28 points.
Of course, that’s been one of the groundbreaking developments since — Martinsburg has become the state’s greatest AAA dynasty, capturing eight of the last 10 championships, including an unprecedented four in a row twice. The Bulldogs currently sport a state-record 56-game win streak and have gone an amazing 129-7 over the last 10 years.
But that’s not the only change to the AAA football landscape in West Virginia since that fateful night — and fight — at University of Charleston Stadium on Nov. 19, 2010:
n South Charleston was riding high as the state’s preeminent power, going 38-2 over its last three seasons under coach John Messinger and trying to become the first program to match Charleston High’s three-year AAA championship run from 1968-70, the only time that had happened since the AAA division began in 1958. The Black Eagles also had the services of senior quarterback Tyler Harris, the returning Kennedy Award winner as the state’s top player, and a Division I basketball recruit in dynamic receiver Pierria’ Henry (Charlotte).
n Brooke, the state’s best AAA team in the 1980s and early 1990s, had been resurrected by coach Tom Bruney after floundering for a full 10 seasons from 1996-2005 (one playoff berth, 43-58 record). Bruney took the Bruins to consecutive Super Six appearances, going 24-4 in 2009-10. Since his departure in 2012, it’s been another bout of disrepair for Brooke, just 8-32 over the last four years.
n The biggest shakeup, however, is that almost none of the major players from that three-week ordeal remains in the same spot — Martinsburg’s Walker just took the job at Concord University, SC’s Messinger died last fall, Brooke’s Bruney is now an assistant at Glendale High in Arizona and Hurricane’s Willis May coaches at South Fort Myers, Florida. The SSAC’s Ray retired in 2016 after nearly nine years as executive director and Harris, one of the four key SC players who was suspended, tragically died in a 2018 domestic shooting incident in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Carrie Webster, the Kanawha County Circuit judge who issued a pair of court orders to allow four suspended SC athletes to play in the semifinals, remains at her position, and Ben Salango, the Charleston lawyer who represented the four SC players, now serves as Kanawha County Commissioner and is running for governor this fall. Arthur Recht, the Ohio County Circuit Judge who issued a temporary injunction to halt the AAA title game on Brooke’s behalf until all legal matters were finalized, died in 2018.
Here’s a recount of that legal saga, along with some present-day perspective:
The oddball brawl
South Charleston’s two-year-plus reign as champion was on life support after it turned the ball over on downs at its own 25, trailing Hurricane 26-22 with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter of their playoff quarterfinal. All the Redskins needed to do was run out the clock.
Donnie Mays, at the time an SC assistant coach and now the program’s head coach, said he and Messinger looked at each other and figured it was all over.
“To be honest,’’ Mays said, “John and I had already shook each other’s hand and said it was a heck of a run we had. We kind of learned in our own way to never give up until the end of the game.’’
On the next snap, linebacker Ray Coleman came to the rescue for SC. He ripped the ball out of the hands of Redskins running back Josh Thompson, who had burned SC on a 72-yard touchdown run moments earlier. This time, Coleman swiped the ball and sprinted 75 yards for an improbable TD to give the Black Eagles the lead in a game with mounting tension.
“If you did a West Virginia version of ESPN’s 30 for 30,’’ Mays said, “that was probably one of the greatest high school football plays I’ve ever seen my entire life. That single play changed everything, but it gets overlooked so much because of the garbage that happened after the game.’’
Hurricane put together one last charge, getting to the SC 30 and facing fourth-and-3. Tyler Pate threw for Ben Fletcher, but Jervaughnte Allen intercepted for the Black Eagles near his own 20 with 14 seconds left. After the play was over, a frustrated Fletcher threw a punch at Allen and was immediately surrounded by a handful of SC players.
Players had been sprinting on and off the field following the change of possession, which helped turn the scuffle into an all-out brawl involving about 40 SC players and 15 from Hurricane, whose bench was on the far sideline. Police came onto the field and pepper sprayed most of the players and at least three of the game officials. Hurricane’s May said he was also pepper sprayed and two of his players were tased. South Charleston coaches Messinger (knee) and Mays (broken hand) were both injured trying to separate players dragging each other to the ground.
“When the first punch was thrown,’’ Mays said, “it was right there on our sideline and we got out there quickly and grabbed them. Usually, you back up and let the officials handle it, but they didn’t handle that game from the get-go.’’
When order was somewhat restored, the coaches and officials huddled, and Messinger and May agreed to run out the remaining time on SC’s 30-26 win. Messinger was told that two of his players, George Streater and Jalen Collins, were ejected for fighting, meaning they would be forced to sit out the next game, per SSAC rules. Keith DeVault, the referee of the officiating crew from the Mason-Dixon Board, was miked for the game but never offered an explanation to fans and his crew ran off the field.
For playoff contests, the SSAC uses game officials from boards outside the areas of where the competing schools are located.
Later that weekend, game officials filed additional reports to the SSAC and instead of just listing Streater (a starter) and Collins (a reserve) as being ejected and facing one-game suspensions for SC, they listed Collins and four different athletes, all of them valuable offensive players — Harris, Henry, running back Trevond Reese and receiver Emerson Gagnon. Four players were listed for Hurricane, but Fletcher — whose punch ignited the brawl — wasn’t one of them.
Officials later testified at a hearing in Kanawha Circuit Court that they initially wrote down 28 jersey numbers from the two teams as having participated in the fight or improperly coming off the bench, but eventually pared that down to nine players. The SSAC allows for no appeals process following ejections.
Parents of four SC players facing suspensions for the semifinal game against Brooke — all but Collins — filed an injunction request in circuit court because of the late changes involving ejected players.
Salango also argued that the SSAC abused its power, allowing game officials to issue ejections long after the game had ended, and well outside a 24-hour time limit. In addition, he said game officials improperly watched video replays of the fight before turning in their subsequent reports. Video review, even today, is not permitted to help officials identify players being ejected for involvement in such an altercation, according to SSAC football clinician Larry McCloy.
Webster agreed with Salango and four days before the Nov. 27 game, issued a temporary restraining order to allow those four players to compete in the semifinal.
Mays said Messinger supported the parents’ move, but added “they did that without us knowing.’’
“They knew the numbers [of the ejected players] that were given on Friday were not the same numbers given on Sunday,’’ Mays said. “At that point in time, there was no such thing as video review after a game, so [the parents] knew some things had to have been done to get those extra numbers.’’
Ray defended the officiating crew’s report, from the changes in player ejections to filing the report two days later and the insistence video review was not used.
“It was a pretty normal report of that magnitude,’’ Ray said recently. “I knew they were taking [extra] time to work on the details. They said they did not utilize any other mechanism to change what they did, and I believed them. So I’m going to say it did not happen.’’
Bill Wooton, an attorney representing the SSAC, didn’t get the chance to address the issue with Judge Webster because of a shortened court schedule caused by the Thanksgiving holiday break, so the four players in question for SC were able to suit up for the semifinal.
Judge Webster didn’t grant her temporary restraining order, allowing the four SC starters to play, until Tuesday afternoon, four days before the Saturday afternoon game against Brooke at UC Stadium. Mays said the uncertainty affected the Black Eagles’ preparation.
“Practice week was tough,’’ Mays said. “We didn’t know who was going to play and who wasn’t. We practiced everybody as normal, but their focus was elsewhere. It was a bad week of practice, and our kids were not engaged.’’
Brooke’s Bruney was certain all week that the four SC athletes in question were going to play, so he readied his team with that in mind. Still, it rankled him that he “followed the rules’’ earlier that season when four of his starters were ejected from a game against Ohio power Steubenville and he sat them out the following week versus Woodrow Wilson.
“With all the media coverage and court injunctions,’’ Bruney said recently, “we knew they were going to play, so we prepared for that. I said all along that this all could have been avoided by following the rules and honoring what the rules are. Then there wouldn’t have been that fiasco. I wasn’t real happy with the way things turned out. [A final court decision] should have happened before the game was ever played.’’
As for the game, SC hung on for a 29-28 victory as Harris threw for 243 yards and four touchdowns, two of them to Henry, and Brooke pounded out 305 yards on the ground but missed three extra-point kicks. The Black Eagles needed a late defensive stand after they failed to milk the clock and threw three straight passes, the last of which was intercepted by the Bruins at their 45, giving them one last chance with three minutes left. However, they never got closer than the SC 31.
Bruney told reporters afterward that he played the game under protest and planned to take legal action of his own. He also took a shot at SC’s late play-calling.
“I didn’t think that was very smart,’’ he said. “I think they need to be running the ball, but they got a court injunction [to play], so what am I talking about intelligence for?’’
Bruney recently said the one thing he regrets from that game was not going for a 2-point conversion when Brooke scored a TD with 5:35 left to get within one point. But he didn’t regret not having his players shake hands with SC’s afterward, owing to the uneasy vibe surrounding the game.
“I know I got a lot of heat for not shaking hands,’’ he said, “but there were a lot of things going on as we approached midfield and I thought it best to separate the kids. There was a lot of trash talk going on, and I didn’t want to see [another fight] happen. I took heat on it, but I’d still do it again today.’’
Collins, the fifth SC athlete ejected in the quarterfinal, did not play for SC, clearing him to compete in the Super Six without legal intervention.
Tit for tat: Brooke in court
Three days before the semifinal game, Brooke athletic director Rob Robinson told the Gazette he was not aware of any pending legal action on his school’s part. But on Nov. 30, three days after the Bruins’ loss, a complaint was filed in circuit court by the Brooke County School Board, resulting in Recht’s temporary restraining order being issued, delaying the AAA title game until all legal matters were resolved.
Later that same day, Webster’s written order cleared the four SC athletes — Harris, Henry, Reese and Gagnon — to play in the state finals, originally set for Dec. 4 at Wheeling Island Stadium. Webster’s order said ‘’the [game] officials violated the rules and the WVSSAC abused its statutory authority’’ in suspending the players for their after-the-fact ejections. Wooton, representing the SSAC, said the officials’ jurisdiction extends until their duties are complete. Webster ultimately disagreed with Wooton, saying the officials didn’t follow proper protocol.
Bruney defended his protest and his school’s decision to go to court.
“The way we approached it, it was a win-win,’’ he said in 2010. “I issued a protest because as soon as those kids walked on the field, it was 1-0 forfeit. When they chose to play those kids who were ruled ineligible by the SSAC, they knew what the consequences would be. We did what we thought we had to do. I’m upset that we’ve gone from wearing the white hat to the black hat — like we’ve done something wrong. But we’ve done the right thing in all this.’’
Messinger said there was a difference in the legal paths of the two sides — Brooke’s school board was the one going to court, while SC’s suit was initiated by parents of the players.
“There’s the perception that I or my administration in some way went out and hired a lawyer to defend these kids,’’ Messinger said following the semifinal game. “That was done by the parents. Then somebody else says why did I let them play? Had I not let these kids play, would I not have been in violation of a court order? Could there be anything else to put more gas on this fire here? I can’t challenge that.’’
Messinger later softened his stance about the four suspended players.
“If they were ejected on the field and the report — one concrete report — had reflected that,’’ Messinger said, “they never would have played [against Brooke]. The parents could have gotten all the lawyers they wanted. Maybe we would have been hard-pressed to win that game, but so be it.’’
The week leading up to the scheduled Class AAA championship game in Wheeling was filled with doubt and questions.
On Nov. 28, the day after the SC-Brooke semifinal, the Black Eagles’ coaching staff did the customary swap of game videos with Martinsburg. However, the following day, the SSAC gave Brooke permission to practice, but as of Dec. 1, Bruney said his players were only “watching film.’’
“It was a tough time for everyone,’’ Bruney said, “to decide what to do with everything and keep the kids focused. It was something else.’’
Martinsburg coach Dave Walker, meanwhile, wasn’t quite sure which opponent his team would face.
“That first week,’’ Walker said recently, “we prepared for two teams. We were working on two different teams at practice. It was an odd week.’’
On Dec. 2, the SSAC filed with the State Supreme Court of Appeals to fight Webster’s decision. The high court, which wasn’t supposed to reconvene until January, was expected to make a decision during its recess. The Class AA game to kick off the Super Six in Wheeling was a little more than 24 hours away.
The Super Six started with Magnolia beating Ravenswood 28-13 in the AA finals on Friday night, and continued on Saturday night with Wheeling Central topping Wahama 28-14 for the Class A title. There was a hole in the schedule at noon Saturday where the AAA finals usually fell. The only indication of a triple-A presence were the sheets distributed in the press box for media to vote on game MVPs. It read: Martinsburg vs. South Charleston.
Interestingly, on the day of the Class AA title game, with the AAA game still in flux, the SSAC instructed Brooke and Martinsburg to exchange game videos.
The hammer falls
On Tuesday, Dec. 7, the State Supreme Court ruled that Webster had overstepped her bounds in issuing orders allowing the four players to compete in the semifinals and finals. The court also said it’s up to the SSAC — and not judges — to decide how the organization enforces its rules.
In quick response, the SSAC went into a closed-door meeting and declared Brooke the winner by forfeit against South Charleston and set the AAA title game — Martinsburg against Brooke — for 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11.
Ray and SSAC officials had previously mulled over the possibilities and had several options to resolve their dilemma. One could have been simply declaring Martinsburg as champion without a title game or allowing SC to play Martinsburg minus the four athletes who had previously been suspended, but played against Brooke.
“We did what I thought was fair and equitable to all the programs involved,’’ Ray said recently, and pointed to difficult decisions made by past and present SSAC executive directors. “When it came to that, Bernie [Dolan] does the same thing, Mike [Hayden] did the same thing, our predecessors all did the same thing.
“You’ve got good people on your staff that you trust and you always turn to them for input. We had extensive discussions on our options, what we felt and what we thought. We looked at all the information we had and when we came out of that meeting, we came out unanimous. The final decision rested on me, and it does bear on your mind. If not, then something’s wrong with you.’’
Mays said South Charleston’s coaches had “no clue’’ that week what would happen if the Supreme Court sided with the SSAC, and the Black Eagles were still holding what Messinger called “spirited’’ practices. Still, Mays said, they held no grudges about the outcome.
“The SSAC did what they had to do,’’ Mays said recently. “They were not the bad guy in this thing. They had a job to do, and they did it. They’re not to blame at all. They’re there to enforce rules and have things done the right way. It just happened to fall back on us.’’
Bruney almost downplayed the decision that put his team in the AAA finals for a second straight season.
“It’s not a feeling of vindication,’’ he said that day. “Everything is just a sad scenario because it didn’t have to come down to this. It’s a black eye for West Virginia football and it’s a black eye for the SSAC.’’
Title game mismatch
A game that took so long to get on the field was over in a hurry. On Dec. 11, Brandon Ashenfelter threw a pair of first-half touchdowns and Martinsburg’s defense dominated in a 30-0 victory versus Brooke, the first-ever football crown for the Bulldogs, who began a dynasty that continues to this day.
“People have forgotten that we lost four before we won one,’’ Walker said of Martinsburg’s Super Six misery-turned-history. “I haven’t forgotten that. It’s not something I like to think about, but it started a good run for us.’’
The Bruins were held to six first downs, 125 net yards and turned the ball over three times. Only two of their 11 possessions crossed midfield. Even worse, they were flagged a AAA-record 14 times for 126 yards, including 10 dead-ball personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
“I was embarrassed about that,” Bruney said after the game. “We’re supposed to be the ones standing up for the right thing. It was kind of ugly out there.
“We ended up playing two weeks later and it seemed to me when we were practicing to get ready that our kids just lost their focus, and some of them got frustrated during the game. Plus, Martinsburg was so much better than us.’’
Messinger said he didn’t watch the title game, instead appearing at the South Charleston Christmas parade with about 95 percent of his players. Mays likewise didn’t care to follow the AAA contest.
“I didn’t want to watch it,’’ Mays said. “I’d sent Dave Walker a text wishing him the best of luck because they hadn’t won a state championship at that point. I didn’t know until later in the day when I pulled into the parking lot where my wife was getting her nails done and tuned in a radio station that said Brooke lost 30-0 and set a record for penalties in a ballgame.’’
What if: Martinsburg-SC?
Following the one-sided AAA finals, it was a fair question to ask: What would have happened if Martinsburg played South Charleston instead? Would the Bulldogs’ dynasty have indeed started that day, or would SC’s have continued?
The match might have hinged on the Black Eagles’ offense — which averaged 47.3 points — against a Bulldogs defense that held 11 of 14 opponents to one TD or less.
“It would have been interesting to see,” Messinger said a day after the AAA finals. “We have a pretty decent passing game, and I’d liked to have seen what we could have done last night against Martinsburg.
“There will be a lot of critics, a lot of people out there guessing how it would have turned out. If we could have gotten our passing game clicking, it could have been a little different outcome. But it’s one of those things we’ll never know. Of course, Martinsburg’s defense could have shut us down from the get-go, too. But it could have been an interesting football game.”
Walker noted that South Charleston had eliminated Martinsburg in the playoff quarterfinals the two previous seasons (28-21 in 2008, 38-28 in 2009), and his team was looking for some redemption.
“To be honest,’’ Walker said recently, “our kids wanted to play South Charleston. We were hoping to play South Charleston, just because they’d beaten us in ’08 and ’09 and we wanted to have another shot at them. Tyler Harris beat us by himself the last two years. He was a great player. We felt like our kids, emotionally, wanted an opportunity to play South Charleston because of our history with them. I thought it would be a pretty good matchup.
“We felt like we had the best team in the state that year, but of course I’m going to say that. But fast forward to the semifinal week and if Brooke makes two of those PATs they missed, they would have won. Brooke should have beaten them. Brooke was a good football team.’’
Mays, the Black Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 2010, also weighed in on the subject of a potential SC-Martinsburg game. The Black Eagles had returned just one starter on their offensive line, but remained explosive with the ball.
“It was one of the best football teams we ever had,’’ Mays said. “It was as good as the ’08 and ’09 teams — offensively, but maybe not defensively. Offensively, that was as good as any team we ever had.’’
So what did we learn?
Well, for one thing, it restored some power to the SSAC and reaffirmed its reputation in larger matters.
When the Supreme Court’s ruling came down in 2010, it revisited the ruling it made in O.J. Mayo’s suit against the SSAC in 2007 regarding the ejection and suspension of the former Huntington High School star basketball player. The 2010 ruling said “the courts should not interfere with the internal affairs of school activities commissions,’’ and it’s unwise “to proceed down the path suggested by the trial court by inviting courts to review an official’s judgment.’’
Ray was recently asked what the ruling meant for the SSAC.
“What the ruling did was reinforce our role when it comes to the activities,’’ Ray said. “We’ve heard the judges before say it’s not their job to intervene in high school and middle school athletics, and as long as we maintain that posture, we can maintain that level playing field. I think our schools and our principals took heed to what took place and if I recall correctly, we didn’t have any further issues for some time of that manner.
“I hope overall that as a governing body, and with our member schools, that we understand we must follow rules as they’re written. I understand a lot of time parents do what they think is best for their kids, and we don’t begrudge that at all. It’s a parent’s right to do that. When you say no to an institution, it doesn’t mean you don’t like them. It means there’s a rule to follow and protocol to follow. As long as you look back and see what you did was the best thing and the right thing, then the rule is good and we can move forward.’’
Another avenue still open for debate is how suspensions are handed out when fighting occurs, especially in a playoff game that could impact the state championship. Messinger said in 2010 that the SSAC and the NFHS need to take a long look at using video review to make sure the right players are disciplined.
“They need to revisit the rules,’’ Messinger said, “so that this doesn’t happen again and again. It’s hard to take the punishment because of the way the rules exist.’’
At present, McCloy said, officials cannot use video review to help make decisions in any game other than the state championships in West Virginia. However, McCloy said “the SSAC can review video to confirm the special reports submitted by game officials [are] accurate in the identification of the disqualified players.’’
Ray said the SSAC continues to use the situation as a learning experience, but doesn’t think video replay should be employed as an officiating tool.
“I’m not sure high school activities are ready for that,’’ Ray said, “something of that magnitude. It would have helped if it was in place at that time, but more than likely it ended up solidifying what happened, if nothing more.
“We had our official clinician dissect that film and the decisions [made] and utilized it in training for the future. We always learn from what we do right and what we do wrong. We never turn our head to learning from anything. So that part did help.’’
Walker pointed out that fallout from the fight influenced policy in state athletics circles.
“It changed football in West Virginia for several years,’’ Walker said. “There was a big emphasis with sportsmanship with the SSAC and with the coaches. It’s something that a lot of coaches were made aware of — what it would cost you. A state championship, or at least the opportunity to play for one. It’s something coaches really paid a lot of attention to, at least for the next few years.’’
As a side note, the brawl happened one week after numerous fans were ejected from the stands during Poca’s first-round Class AA playoff game at Ravenswood.
n There were concerns about possible repercussions when SC and Hurricane were scheduled to play their Mountain State Athletic Conference basketball game on Jan. 10 in Putnam County, so the game was initially called off. Then on Feb. 7, with almost no advance notice, the game was played at an earlier hour and there were no incidents, even though each side had football players participating.
n If there were any bad feelings between SC and Hurricane players, they didn’t linger long. Hurricane had three players selected to compete in the June 2011 North-South Football Classic and South Charleston had two, one of them Harris. Several of those players forged friendships that week during pregame training camp in Institute.
n Martinsburg, of course, has never looked back after getting that coveted first championship in 2010, even if it had to work an extra week to do so. “It was odd,’’ Walker said, “but it worked out for us.’’ Britt Sherman, an offensive assistant and special teams coach at Martinsburg, was elevated to take Walker’s place after the latter departed for Concord last December. Walker is a native of Pineville, which is a little more than an hour from Concord’s campus in Athens.
n Bruney was run out of Brooke in a 2012 power struggle despite going 29-9 in three seasons. He returned to Arizona in 2014, a place where he’d previously coached high school ball from 1989-2006. He’s now a highly regarded offensive coordinator. “I don’t want to be a head coach any more,’’ Bruney said. “I figure at this point in my career, it’s better for me to mentor young coaches. I had a good three-year run [at Brooke] and we brought the pride back. I say I was supposed to be there for a reason, and it was a good run. I’m still in contact with a lot of those kids, and those were great relationships, great times.’’
n Mays offered a few of his reflections on those days and times: “It was a tough night,’’ he said, “but it was 10 years ago. Do I wish things had gone differently? Absolutely. But I’ll never remember that as much as the impact those kids made on my life, and the other coaches felt the same way. We went to practice, and it was fun.’’
n Messinger pondered retirement following the 2010 season, but stuck around for two more years and was succeeded by Mays. One of Messinger’s final messages on the strange saga was printed in the Dec. 13 Gazette: “There were mistakes made from top to bottom on this thing. I made mistakes myself. But if we don’t learn from those mistakes, then shame on us. I can say the same thing to the SSAC. We’ve all got a real opportunity to right this ship.’’