In a season filled with both despair and ecstacy, oft-maligned West Springfield has discovered something about itself and something about a game that extends beyond the boundaries of a football field.
Seldom, if ever, in the local annals of scholastic football has a team endured more yet advanced further toward a major championship.
West Springfield (10-3) meets Hampton (11-2) in the Virginia AAA final today at Woodson at 1:30 p.m. Park View (11-2) of Sterling Park takes on Giles County (13-0) for the state AA crown at Giles County Stadium, 20 miles southwest of Blacksburg, also at 1:30.
The adversities West Springfield has faced might have decimated most teams: three straight losses to open the season, a late-season loss that apparently eliminated the Spartans from the title chase but was reversed by a forfeit, and, finally, the embarrassing resignation of the head coach after he planted a tape recorder in a visiting team's locker room.
"Lesser teams would not have come through the ordeals this team has survived, much less have come this far," said the school's athletic director, Bill Abell. "They have developed lines of communication that you seldom see on high school teams. The players and the coaches now share in the burden of planning what to do. The longer the season lasted, the closer they got. For all of us, inside and outside, this should be a valuable lesson."
While the oddsmakers might be inclined to favor Hampton over West Springfield, sentimentalists would probably be inclined to bet the mortgage on the Spartans.
"The kids are playing as if they're possessed now," said Bill Hanley, who became interim head coach when Jim Jensen resigned. "I know it was tough on them and it was tough on me. We asked the kids to work with us and we could still have a successful season. They are the same kids who worked under Jim and we didn't change a thing. I was just a different voice."
The preseason pick to win the Northern Region crown, the Spartans were quickly dubbed the '80 choke artists when they dropped their first three games. They "went back to basics and changed a few people around," according to Hanley, and won five straight games, including a big one over W. T. Woodson. But bad luck hit again when Oakton upset West Springfield. The loss apparently doomed the Spartans chances for a playoff berth and the following Monday, practice was tomb-like.
"We knew our season was over," said senior center Todd Stottlemeyer. "We felt real low that Monday. We knew that it was for the seniors."
But the next day, Oakton was charged with using an ineligible player and West Springfield was awarded a forfeit victory, giving it renewed hope.
"There was no way we were going to blow this second chance," said Spartan all-Met tailback Jack Brooks. "After the coach incident, we really came together as a team. We had been through a lot and suddenly we were in position to show the area we were a good team."
No one has ever questioned the Spartans' talent or the quality of their coaching staff. In addition to Jensen, Hanley, Pete Gallagher and Mark Hyman have worked together for at least six years. Tony Calderone and former players Mike Kowalski and Greg Smith joined the staff two years ago.
"We knew what a touch position the coaches were in so we tried to make their job easier for them," Stottlemeyer said. "By not making mistakes and working hard in practice, it took a lot of tension off them. Under the circumstances, they've done a great job."
Jensen, who coached the Spartans to their best record in the school's history last year (10-1), resigned when he admitted to placing a tape recorder in the locker room of visiting Lake Braddock prior to their game. Jensen said he feared the Lake Braddock team might be planning to malign some of his players and, he said, he used the tape only to listen to the Bruin coaches' pregame discussions.
Lake Braddock Coach Stan Kemp, who was fired last week, discovered the tape and reported it. At the same time, West Springfield was awarded the forfeit and harassment began. The school was deluged with phone calls from Northern Virginia residents who felt, because of the Jensen incident, the school should forfeit its right to be in the playoffs.
On the other hand, some parents reportedly began a petition to have Jensen reinstated. Principal George Stepp, who sources say gave Jensen the option to either resign or be fired, said no one has presented him with a petition.
"Right now, everyone is just excited about being in the final game," Stepp said. "This is a special occasion but we're trying to keep things normal. I've talked to the players about what this means and they've taken everything that's happened in stride. We have not talked about adversity. We want to be first-class winners or, in the event we lose, first-class losers. These kids have a great deal of humility and character and have achieved a once-in-a-lifetime honor -- playing in a state championship game."
"The bad incidents are behind us and we feel the entire area is behind us now," said Brooks. "They know we've been through a lot."
Park View also has gone through an intriguing season, pulling off one upset after another on its way to the championship game.
If they are to win the title, they must find a way to stop a football relic -- the single wing. "It's been a long time since I've seen the single wing, much less faced it," Park View Coach Ed Scott said.
Still, the Patriots will not be overmatched physically. Giles County is a finesse team and relies more on deception than power.
West Springfield won't see anything out of the past except tradition. Hampton has been in seven state championship games, the last in 1977, and won them all. The Crabbers know a bit about adversity as well. They had to forfeit the first two games because they used an ineligible player, then won 11 straight.
But nobody had more of a rollercoaster season than West Springfield. "Those things are behind us now," said Stottlemeyer. "The entire team started to pull together and there's no way we will go out there flat. We have a point to prove to everybody in the region."