For a few uncomfortable minutes last spring, new Hylton football coach Lou Sorrentino felt like the friendly stranger who strolls into the Old West town only to be met by burning stares and pursed lips.
It was supposed to be a pleasant introduction in the school auditorium in June, when Sorrentino was named as head coach to replace program founder Bill Brown. But it instead started out as what for Sorrentino must have initially felt like an open-mike night at a comedy club, with him as the knee-knocking standup.
Protective of their football legacy, the Bulldogs were not rude. Just wary.
"There was an air of, hey, this is our program," Sorrentino said, raising his chin to demonstrate the steely gazes he encountered. "I really felt a sense of, 'Who is this guy? We're good, and you're just not going to come in and win us over with a name or something.' Almost checking me out.
"I told them this -- 'It's been a long time since I've been nervous in front of a group of people.' I took it as a challenge. The way it ended was them at least being interested in this guy; this guy is being kind of aggressive and gung-ho. My whole goal was to capture them a little bit."
With rousing off-the-cuff remarks about fresh starts, crowd-pleasing "Fourth of July" hits and rival teams as "vultures" dying to pick at the carcass of what they might misperceive as a vulnerable program, Sorrentino won over the Bulldogs with his enthusiasm -- and the state championship ring he wore specifically for the occasion, a treasured trinket he earned for winning the Division 5 title at Culpeper in 1999, the year Hylton won its second of two back-to-back Division 6 crowns.
Hylton senior quarterback Jeff Overton, for one, admired the "big fat" jewelry afterward when the players happily introduced themselves to the interloper they had given the cold shoulder just moments before.
"I didn't take it negatively at all," said Sorrentino, 43, who had the comfort of knowing Brown had left on his own terms to enter administration. "I took it as these guys are winners. It wasn't an arrogant thing, it wasn't a nasty thing. It was maybe the way I would have been if I was a player and had a coach leave who I really thought was a great coach."
"It's like getting to know a new friend, trying to see what he's like and him trying to see what you're like," senior running back Shawn Badie said of adjusting to a new coach.
Once past the formalities and the initial settling in, Sorrentino then had to try to blend two successful offensive philosophies, two successful defensive philosophies, two successful coaching staffs and two successful modi operandi, all the while readying a host of bit-part Bulldogs for starting roles.
There were weighty philosophical decisions to make: How much should you change when you take over a program that has gone 51-3 the previous four seasons? But then again, why hesitate to implement your own ideas when your former team went 63-10 the previous six years? How married are you to such details as style of snap count, huddling and play-action pass terminology? Your new players are not accustomed to doing it the way you prefer.
But if you change too much, the learning curve gets steeper. And if you don't change enough, how do you put your stamp on the program and assert yourself as the new boss? How would the new assistants, including two coming from the Culpeper staff, Dave Boley and Todd Campbell, intermingle with the holdover Hylton coaches, one of whom was Brown's son John.
"I told John that if I ever say anything that you deem as disrespectful to the program, I don't mean that at all, you know I respect your father," Sorrentino said. "I don't think you have to bash [what came previously] to make yourself look good.
"I think the big difference was here I had to develop rapport again. There were a few times this year that I took a step back and said, 'This isn't something that happens overnight.' "
Even so, Sorrentino gained plenty of acceptance after the team's rugged scrimmage against perennial Northern Region power Centreville.
"As soon as we saw that his system worked, we bought into it pretty quickly," senior two-way all-Northwestern Region lineman Jono Petrovitch said. "Once we saw that we could compete with one of the top-ranked teams at the time, we all bought into his system."
"When he came in, he didn't try to change things all around," junior linebacker Endor Cooper said. "He tried to keep things that we already knew and add on to it."
The latest addition could be a ring to a finger. That certainly has been the ultimate goal all along, but when the players are strangers, hoisting a state championship trophy is not necessarily the foremost thought on your mind.
"There were a lot of things you had to think through and you weren't sure how it was going to play out," Sorrentino said. "[Now] I see us in the state championship game. That doesn't necessarily make every decision right, but we made enough of them right and blended well enough together to get us to this point.
"That was a challenge. It didn't come easy."