EMORY, Va. – Mark Palmer was already drenched from the steady rain that had fallen all afternoon, but Patrick Henry High School’s head football coach became completely soaked in the final moments of Saturday’s 24-0 victory over J.I. Burton in the Region 1D championship game.
That’s because offensive lineman Ryan Bunnell and some of his teammates had doused their coach with a bucket of water as is the custom at the conclusion of such triumphs.
“Our big lineman must not know I’m 5-foot-6 and he’s 6-foot-4,” Palmer said. “He dropped it right on my head.”
As the Rebels reigned in the rain, the soaked Palmer soaked up the scene.
It was the first regional title in program history for the Rebels.
It was Palmer’s first regional championship as a head coach.
PH had finished as Region 1D runner-up the year before, but didn’t have to settle for second-best on this day.
Palmer had given his team a history lesson all week about what the Region D title meant, regaling them with stories about those Appalachia and Powell Valley juggernauts of yesteryear.
As a Southwest Virginia original who grew up in the West Dante community of Dickenson County, Palmer knows the pride a Region D title provides for small communities on this end of the state.
He was a star running back at Ervinton High School, but never got to carry the ball in the playoffs.
Palmer did an admirable job as the gridiron boss at now-defunct Ervinton (1990-1997) and St. Paul (2003-10), which were perennially among the smallest football-playing schools in the state during his tenure, but playoff magic eluded him.
He was in for a whole new challenge when he arrived at Patrick Henry in 2011.
The Rebels had gone 0-10 the year before he took over.
“I just felt like Patrick Henry was an opportunity to build something,” Palmer said. “I told the principal who hired me, Keith Perrigan, that we were going to get here. I am not sure he believed me either. Patrick Henry’s always had good athletes, I just felt like you had to have a vision and the young men have bought in wonderfully. They practice hard, they dedicate themselves in the weight room and I’m really proud of that.”
The success didn’t occur overnight, however.
Palmer won his first game at the helm of the Rebels and then lost the next nine.
PH had a 6-25 record after his initial three seasons, but Palmer always believed the program was headed in the right direction.
“When he came in, he promised from the beginning things were going to change,” said Fred Selfe, who was a wide receiver on Palmer’s first team at Patrick Henry and is now an assistant coach at the school. “Honestly, we didn’t know what was going to come of it. But every year we’ve gotten better and better. He always said that he promised those guys on that first team he’d turn it around and he’s done it. … It’s been unreal to see.”
What some called a lost cause eight years ago, Palmer saw a golden opportunity.
Some pundits figured the Rebels would never consistently win, Palmer was positive they could.
When some had low expectations, Palmer set the bar high.
A playoff win came in 2014 and other milestones have followed.
“He keeps us hyped all the time,” said Patrick Henry senior Isaac Chaffin. “He makes sure we don’t keep our heads down. Even if something happens that’s not too good, he’s there to help us and support us. It’s really amazing to be a part of this team.”
A state semifinal matchup with Galax is up next for Patrick Henry, but allow the Rebels and their coach a chance to relish the regional championship the rest of the weekend.
“Coach Palmer – hats off to him,” J.I. Burton coach Jacob Caudill said moments after his team had lost. “He’s a great guy. We talked before the game and talked some earlier in the week. I can’t say anything but good things about Coach Palmer. He’s done a heck of a job at PH.”
The last time Palmer coached in a state semifinal game was 1988, when he was an assistant on Dennis Vaught’s staff at now-defunct Lexington High School during a state championship season.
Thirty-one years later, he realizes these opportunities don’t come around very often.
“I’m going to cherish this moment and let these kids know how sweet it is,” Palmer said. “I think the kids understand how big of a deal this is for our school and they are really enjoying the moment.”
A 13-0 record.
A Hogoheegee District title.
A Region 1D championship.
A spot in the state semifinals
The Palmer plan has come to fruition.
“This program was at what you would call rock-bottom when he got here and he’s made it really strong,” said PH senior running back Zach Brown. “He’s given us a lot of courage and really pushed us to be our best. He’s a great guy and a great leader.”
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