It was only four years ago that the Bland County Bears were reveling in a 64-57 first-round playoff win at Patrick Henry. There will be no football at all to celebrate at the VHSL Class 1 school in 2019.
Bland County administrators announced on Aug. 8 that a lack of available players had led to the cancellation of the season and that sent shockwaves throughout Southwest Virginia and some schools are currently in scramble mode in regard to their schedules.
Rural Retreat, Northwood and George Wythe all had regular-season games planned against the Bears, while Holston and Patrick Henry had preseason contests lined up with Bland County.
“We had obviously heard they didn’t have many coming to summer workouts,” said Rural Retreat coach Jamey Hughes. “But I was surprised that they had to drop it to be honest.”
PH was supposed to go to Bland County for a three-way scrimmage that also included Roanoke Catholic on Saturday. The Rebels will now host Roanoke Catholic instead.
Holston had a VHSL Benefit Game scheduled for Aug. 23 at Bland, but they will now host Roanoke Catholic that night.
Northwood has replaced Bland County with Narrows on its schedule. That worked out well for the Panthers, who will now travel to play the Green Wave in Week 2 and moved their open date to Week 3.
Meanwhile, George Wythe and Rural Retreat are still trying to find opponents.
Both GW and Bland belong to the Mountain Empire District.
“What people have got to realize is we had a bye week in Week 6 and now we have an open date in Week 8 when we were supposed to be playing Bland,” said George Wythe coach Brandon Harner. “What you have to do is see if any of their non-district opponents are open that week and they are not right now. You can look at playing somebody twice from the [MED], but they have got to match those two weeks. If you can’t get people to match those two weeks then you can’t.
“That is just how it is. It is too late. There is nobody that has got an open date unless they played Bland and it really hurts you for next year if Bland don’t have it because we are in that first year of a two-year cycle.”
Perhaps nobody is in more of a bind than Rural Retreat.
“They were scheduled to be our homecoming game this year,” said Hughes, who is also the school’s athletic director. “We have looked at several options, including playing George Wythe twice, but there is nothing in place yet. We are definitely scrambling, but there is a chance that we only play nine games. Football-wise we can survive just playing nine games, but financially it will hit us pretty hard if we don’t find a fifth home game.”
Here’s another question: What happens to those Bland County players who wanted to take the field this year?
“We have been contacted by a kid that wants to transfer,” Hughes said. “Nothing has been finalized on that at this time. Unfortunately, the VHSL doesn’t give any type of hardship, so that makes it a tough situation.”
Bland County has a unique gridiron history, first fielding a team in 1992 with a combination of students from Bland and Rocky Gap high schools.
“I was a sophomore on the first team in 1992,” said David Lambert, a former quarterback and outside linebacker for the Bears. “At the time, we were the only combined school football team east of the Mississippi River. A youth feeder program began in Bland when I was in third grade, which would have been 1985. During the first year, I was the only Bland kid and the rest of the players were from Rocky Gap. We played youth football for four years until I was in seventh grade and then a middle school program was established. My dad [Dave Lambert] and Ed Selfe were co-head coaches.
“The middle school team had a fairly even split of kids form Bland and Rocky Gap. We played football together and all other sports at our own high schools. The next year we had an eighth and ninth grade team. The next year we played JV and my sophomore year we played varsity and went 0-and-9 before winning our final game of the season against Holston. At this point in the program, all but three kids were from Bland. A complete shift in the program from the start.”
Bland County finished as Region C, Division 1 runner-up in 1994, 1995 and 1996.
“Literally we started from scratch; no one in Bland County had ever played football,” Lambert said. “We took some tough losses that first varsity season in 1992, but we got better and it led to some winning down the road. We really created a winning football culture in a short period of time. Both Bland and Rocky Gap were known as basketball schools. To finish my senior year as district champs and one game away from the state semifinals was a big deal.”
Lambert, who is now the principal at Wallace Middle School in Bristol, Virginia, always kept tabs on his alma mater. He will not have any scores to check this fall.
“It was very disappointing to hear that the school would not have a football team this year,” Lambert said. “Football plays such a big part in the culture of the school. A successful program can really bring a lot of excitement and energy to the school and community at the beginning of the year. Hopefully, the number of players can improve and the program can be brought back.”
Manassas Park and Park View-Sterling are reinstating their varsity football programs in 2019 after not fielding squads last fall.
While no other school in Southwest Virginia had to cancel its season like Bland County, the numbers game is still a yearly battle.
“It is unfortunate. As coaches and administrators and schools and teachers and parents, we have got to be protectors of the game. We have all got to come together and figure something out,” Harner said. “There ain’t just one reason why numbers have went down everywhere and it ain’t just football. It is basketball, baseball, it is everything, sports in general.
“We have got to push these kids to come out and want to compete and be a part of something instead of doing nothing. That makes them better students, makes them a better individual, it teaches responsibilities and we are going to have to come together and figure something out because we have got to protect this game, it is a great game. It brings communities together, it brings people together, there is nothing like it so we have got to figure something out.”