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Clintwood’s 1970s football juggernaut finally met its match: Castlewood

Tanner Cook • Updated May 24, 2020 at 6:30 PM

Football in Southwest Virginia has long been king, but few can say they’ve been the “kings” of Southwest Virginia football.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Clintwood Greenwave — under the direction of the late Ralph Cummins — built a dynasty that seemed invincible.

That is until one October night in 1979 when Castlewood knocked the kings from their throne and ended Clintwood’s 64-game regular-season unbeaten streak that spanned nearly six seasons.

REWIND A BIT

The 1972 season ended on a sour note for the Greenwave, who lost back-to-back games to Lonesome Pine District rivals J.J. Kelly (16-12) and J.I. Burton (20-14) and missed the playoffs.

They didn’t lose another LPD game until falling to Appalachia during the 1980 season.

The legendary Cummins — a member of the National High School Sports, VHSL, Emory & Henry and Virginia Sports halls of fame — led Clintwood back to the playoffs the next seven years, and the Wave were the only team left standing in 1974, 1975 and 1978.

The 1974 team in particular was arguably one of Southwest Virginia’s best ever. Led by Johnny McFall, the Greenwave rolled over opponents all season — with the exception of a scoreless tie at Appalachia — by a combined score of 404-51 en route to the VHSL Group A championship.

Clintwood suffered only three losses, all in the playoffs, in that time period. Those were a 23-22 loss to Madison County in the 1973 championship game at Bullitt Park; a 16-13 defeat by Pennington in the first round of the 1976 playoffs that was the first overtime game in Virginia history; and a 14-0 loss to Honaker in 1977.

Coming off another state title, the Greenwave’s run was at full steam entering the 1979 season despite listing only 10 seniors on the roster.

BATTLE OF STATE POWERS

Castlewood wasn’t anything to sneeze at ahead of its Oct. 5 matchup with Clintwood. The Blue Devils had outscored their opponents by a combined 170-15 and were 5-0 under third-year coach John Wayne Martin.

Clintwood was 4-0 after beating Lebanon, Coeburn, Powell Valley and Ervinton to start the season. But the Wave’s coach knew a loss could be awaiting his team.

“Sooner or later, it’s going to happen,” Cummins told then-Times News reporter Ken Datzman in the lead-up article for the game.

“Clintwood has won so often that they might be going to sleep,” then-St. Paul coach Kyle Fletcher said to Datzman.

“There’s truth to that,” Cummins responded. “It becomes harder to get up for every team. (The opposition) is like a bunch of crazy guys.”

In their 1978 meeting, Castlewood and Clintwood were tied going into the fourth quarter before the Wave pulled out a 27-13 win.

With athletes like Leon Talford, Dewitt House and Abo White, among others, the Blue Devils had the athleticism to keep pace with Clintwood. What they needed was to beat the Wave was manpower, according to Cummins.

“The more you win, the closer you come to getting beat,” Martin told Datzman. “But it’s going to take a good team to beat Clintwood. We’ve played them good the last two years. ... When you play Clintwood, you have to be ready.”

THE COMEBACK

Clintwood was the first to strike, scoring in the second quarter after a seven-play, 60-yard march capped by Kelly Vanover’s touchdown from 3 yards out.

The Blue Devils used a wide variety of spread formations, but Clintwood was prepared and held them in check.

Martin switched it up in the second half, going back to some basic formations, and Castlewood responded by hanging two scores on the scoreboard in the third quarter. House connected with John Keith and Vance Owens for TDs and a 14-7 Blue Devils lead.

In the game’s closing seconds, Talford intercepted a Clintwood pass at the Castlewood 38-yard line to seal the upset.

Denny Darnell, then the Times News assistant sports editor, wrote that the game was “reminiscent of the David and Goliath story as minute Castlewood came up with a giant-killing effort last night to halt the Greenwave regular season unbeaten skein at 64 straight.”

“I was praying and He answered,” Martin said in his postgame speech to his team. “God helps you more when you help yourself. And you players helped yourself out there. You earned this victory. With pride on the line, you beat the No. 1 team in the state. You proved you can play with anybody.

“I love you, I really do. You’re my sons. You worked hard and put it on the line. And good things happened. I knew all week we’d win. This is a stepping stone.”

The Wave committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers, including four lost fumbles, but still outgained the Blue Devils 297-141.

“Castlewood played a great game ... they just outplayed us,” Cummins said. “We didn’t play a bad game, I don’t think. Turnovers hurt us just as they have all year.”

The Wave suffered a second loss that season, falling at home to Parry McCluer in the second round of the playoffs — a rare happening in Cummins’ 35 years of coaching. Castlewood, at the time playing in the formidable Hogoheegee District, finished the season 8-2 but missed the playoffs.

Cummins’ last season was in 1987, and his 271 wins at Clintwood remain in the top 15 in VHSL history. The Greenwave’s streak is still the state’s third-longest regular season unbeaten string and is the only such one west of Roanoke.

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