Saturday, December 11, 2010
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Eastern Montgomery football team has chance at first state title

The team knows a lot more about football than the first team of 43 years ago did, some might say.

Former football player David Ryan, former cheerleaders Charlotte Hawes and Julia Milton, and former coach Bernie Vishneski of the 
first Eastern Montgomery team, then Alleghany District, stand by Shawsville Middle School, which used to be their high school.

Justin Cook The Roanoke Times

Former football player David Ryan, former cheerleaders Charlotte Hawes and Julia Milton, and former coach Bernie Vishneski of the first Eastern Montgomery team, then Alleghany District, stand by Shawsville Middle School, which used to be their high school.

The first football team at Eastern Montgomery, then Alleghany District High School, wore donated Virginia Tech helmets.

Justin Cook The Roanoke Times

The first football team at Eastern Montgomery, then Alleghany District High School, wore donated Virginia Tech helmets.

Eastern Montgomery sophomore Casey Smith hugs senior quarterback Shawn Christian after a pep rally in the school gymnasium Friday. Eastern Montgomery plays Riverheads at noon today at Salem Stadium for its first football state championship.

MATT GENTRY The Roanoke Times

Eastern Montgomery sophomore Casey Smith hugs senior quarterback Shawn Christian after a pep rally in the school gymnasium Friday. Eastern Montgomery plays Riverheads at noon today at Salem Stadium for its first football state championship.

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Group A Division 1 final

Eastern Montgomery vs. Riverheads

ELLISTON -- With the utmost respect to Janet Jackson, perhaps one of the most startling wardrobe malfunctions in football history happened a lifetime away from a Super Bowl.

Forty-three years ago, at old Alleghany District High School, the first boys to play football in eastern Montgomery County once had more embarrassing uniform issues.

But when was the last time anyone saw junior varsity football players who didn't even know how to get dressed in their uniforms, much less have the slightest idea how to play the game?

The coach hoped nobody was looking.

But people will certainly be watching at noon today at Salem Stadium when descendants of those first football players, now playing under the burgundy and cream banner of Eastern Montgomery High School, take a spotless record into the state Group A Division 1 championship game against once-beaten Riverheads High School.

Eastern Montgomery is housed in a 10-year-old building in Elliston but essentially is the same one previously known as Alleghany District, then Shawsville.

Nobody around here is anything but proud now. With quarterback Shawn Christian headlining a core of 18 seniors, everything this team has done since it hit the postseason has been a first.

Charlotte Marye Hawes is one of the original Alleghany cheerleaders. She'll be most interested to see how the Mustangs do today.

"To us, this would have been unimaginable," she said.

n n n

On a steamy August day in 1967 at that very first football practice, coach Bernie Vishneski was having a hard time imagining that the boys in front of him would ever play football. And they hadn't even executed their first jumping jack.

An agriculture teacher at the high school, Vishneski was a hard-bitten former offensive and defensive lineman at Virginia Tech. When interest arose in the community in starting a team at the high school, Vishneski mentioned he knew where to get some equipment.

With three pickup truck loads of old donated Fighting Gobblers equipment, he had more than enough gear to outfit the 15 boys who would play the junior varsity schedule. When the coach first distributed the pads and helmets, things started to go haywire.

One problem was the headgear. When the players first got the helmets, some of the face masks weren't screwed on.

"We were putting the helmets on backwards," said David Ryan, who would be the team's top running back and linebacker.

But that wasn't the worst of it.

Back in those days, hip pads weren't made girdle-style as they are now. All those players had for hip protection was a white web belt that was attached to a pair of small and mostly inadequate fiberglass pads for the hips and another pad that sort of covered one's tailbone. The buckle was in front.

Simple, right? Not if you'd never played football before.

Nevertheless, the boys had common sense. When they put on their hip pads, they turned them around.

Hip pads as codpiece. Brilliant.

The coach didn't see it that way.

The guy who played offensive and defensive tackle at 220 pounds for VPI coach Frank Moseley blew not one but two gaskets.

"You can't print what I said," said Vishneski, now 73.

The players weren't the only ones confused at first. But at least the cheerleaders knew how to get dressed.

Still, Bill Angle, the father of squad members Jessi and Deni and a man who had some experience with football, thought a seminar on the game might be helpful to some of the cheerleaders. So he pulled out a chalkboard and sat them down.

"There were those arrows going everywhere," Hawes said. "We didn't know what in the world. We were 16-year-old girls."

Angle was on to something, though. In one of initial games of that maiden campaign, when the referee pointed his arm downfield and hollered "First down," the girls took their cue.

"First and 10, do it again!" they chanted.

"Except it was the other team that made the first down," Hawes said.

Angle couldn't believe it.

"He was furious," Hawes said. "He just stood there and ran his hand through his hair."

n n n

There was a lot of fuming, hair pulling, and eye rolling in those early days of high school football here.

Through some ups and more downs, football has survived. They've never seen anything like this 2010 bunch, though.

Before EastMont beat host Clintwood in a snow-covered 26-21 classic last week, neither the Mustangs nor their predecessors had ever won so much as a Region C title, much less a state semifinal.

"Not to be maudlin about it or anything, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for me," said Scott Hagood, who has just finished his 29th season on the sideline chain gang for EastMont.

That's an equal tenure on the detail as the very same David Ryan who played on that first team years ago. With one season fewer is Marty Childress. Mac Milton is the junior member of the squad.

"I've been at this a long time," Childress said. "This team has even made me root against my old high school."

That would be Clintwood.

Former Greenwave player Childress braved the four-hour trip there last week for the ballgame, as did a full visiting grandstand contingent from EastMont.

Personal history aside, Childress' allegiance was sealed years ago. Two sons played at EastMont, eldest Ryan being one of the few from the program who has played NCAA Division I football. He was a deep snapper at the University of Virginia.

When the triumphant procession returned from Clintwood that night, a Montgomery County public safety detail greeted it and led the parade the rest of the way home.

At Hawes' house, they were celebrating the birthday of former Sen. Madison Mayre, D-Shawsville, her father, when they saw the flashing lights on U.S. 460.

"We thought there'd been some terrible wreck," Hawes said.

The only wreckage was Clintwood's state champion hopes.

That school has won three state football crowns and was runner-up thrice more. EastMont, which hadn't earned the Three Rivers District crown until this year, has now won its first three postseason games.

Shawsville went to regionals in 1977. Then EastMont made it six times, all this decade, the first three under coach Brett McPherson, now at Grayson County, the past three under coach Mark Poston.

There was never a coach in these parts like Vishneski, though.

"He was a tough one," said Ryan, who now counts the old coach as one of his best friends.

n n n

If you got thirsty during practice, Vishneski, a Pennsylvania native, would offer you a salt tablet.

"No water," Ryan said.

When time came to bestow the traditional varsity letters, only seven of the 15 players received them. In the coach's judgment, the remaining players had not given the required effort.

"I only had 15, so I couldn't kick 'em off the team," Vishneski said. "But I didn't have to give 'em a letter."

Vishneski had four sons come through the program. Grandsons Joseph and Jordan Vishneski are on the current squad.

The old coach was so no-nonsense that he even threw Ryan, his best player, out of agriculture class over a technicality with the order that the classes were supposed to be taken during the four-year program.

Problems spilled over to the football team in the fallout from that episode. Eventually, things returned to normal.

Vishneski insisted: "Rules are rules."

n n n

Many helped get EastMont football off the ground.

The home economics teacher at the high school, Helen Simmons, hand-dyed a set of game jerseys so the team could have home and away colors.

Tom Dunkenberger helped organize the first concession stand in what looked like a lean-to barn.

The boys in the program eventually learned to play football. But there were still no powerhouses.

"Not a lot of competition," said Milton, who played for rival Rural Retreat.

Ryan was, by all accounts, a terrific player. Ryan had no dispute with characterizations of the first Alleghany team.

"We didn't know anything, we were so bad."

When it comes to the story that began with salt tablets and donated football equipment and continues today at Salem Stadium, you can't, as they say, make this kind of stuff up.

"This is just so great for this community, for these kids," Hawes said. "That's true just because they made it this far. To me, they've already won it."

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