Anniversary for first HV playoff team

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Tonight, Happy Valley will face Rockwood in the first round of the TSSAA playoffs atop Warrior Hill. It also will mark a special anniversary, as it was 25 years ago that the first team in school history made the postseason.
   The 1977 Warriors were coached by Don Verran and featured an abundance of talent, led by quarterback/defensive back Michael Hawkins. Ironically, Hawkins' nephew Daniel Dover is a lineman on this year's Warrior playoff team.
   That 1977 edition of HV football saw the team sport a 7-4 overall record, but a 5-0 record in conference play. The team recorded five shutouts that season, including three against Carter County rivals, Hampton 20-0, Unaka 21-0 and Cloudland 34-0.
   "We had a pretty good team," remembered Coach Verran. "It was one of the best teams to ever wear the Happy Valley uniforms. What we did was run the triple option and I gave Hawkins a lot of freedom. He had about three different plays where he could do what he wanted to.
   "Sometimes coaches outcoach themselves. The players sometimes have a better feel for what's going on out on the field than the coaches. Michael was experienced and he was one of the better quarterbacks to play at Happy Valley."
   Years later, the former Warrior field general appreciates the coach allowing him to have such free reign.
   "With the backfield we had, we were pretty versed in the triple option," recalled Hawkins. "We had Kim Hughes, a converted tackle who went to fullback. I abused the fullback pretty bad. I would pull the ball away from him at the last second. At halfback, there was Mike Barnett, who had run the option series with me since middle school.
   "I knew I could toss it to him at a 45-degree angle, whether we were three yards or forty yards downfield. I had great confidence in him.
   "Coach would signal a play to us and it looked like he was praying on the sidelines. Coach even allowed me to call plays. He trusted me if I had insight on a play. I admire him for allowing me as a young kid to have that kind of freedom."
   Hawkins wasn't the only star on that HV team. Besides him, five other players were named all-conference selections for the '77 Warriors, including end Rick Hamm, tackle Brad McKinney, linebacker Ora Hyder and defensive back Greg Taylor.
   Tim Holdren was only a sophomore that season, but he earned the distinction at the pre-season jamboree of being the conference's fastest lineman. He remembered the team as a whole as a "scrappy bunch of players."
   "We played a lot of straight up the gut, hard-nosed football," said Holdren. "We didn't throw it a lot, but we did have some players that could catch. There were a lot of good old country boys, but we had a lot of talent. Everybody played offense, defense, special teams.
   "We also had some great coaches. Jack Bragg, our linebacker coach, was really good. Coach Verran, he's top notch. He's always very intelligent. Hack Hyder was the motivator and Verran was the brains. You liked them even when they were getting on you. I remember the first time we made the playoffs it was really strict. You had to win the conference and the conference was larger then than it is now."
   Despite the playoff run, one regular season loss is still a sore spot a quarter of a century later. The Warriors held a 6-0 lead over Elizabethton right before halftime, when the Cyclones scored a touchdown with no time left on the clock. A field goal in the second half was the only other scoring allowed as Elizabethton held on for a 10-6 win.
   "That was a tough one to swallow," said Verran. "In one sense, that was our worst loss when you think about the rivalry with Elizabethton. It would have been a big feather in our hat if we had beaten them. At that time, the school was a lot bigger and they were considered a lot better team at that point. We might have lost the game, but we enjoyed the competition."
   Added Holdren: "Happy Valley is a big school now compared to back then. Elizabethton's enrollment was 3-4 times larger than ours back then. The guy I blocked weight 260 pounds. I still remember him, Freddy Erwin, he was twice my size. I remember we never lost to Hampton, Cloudland or Unaka when I played there and it made it really tough losing to Elizabethton."
   Asked where the '77 team ranks among the great teams in Warrior history, Verran responded: "It was one of the better teams. It's hard to compare one team with another, but we had good players and coaches. We were young and energetic and thought that football was it."
   Hawkins named off several teammates he said could have played on any Warrior team.
   "Rick Hamm, Rick Butler and Greg Taylor were all good receivers," said Hawkins. "Ora Hyder, Bradley McKinney, Doug Jones were all good defensive players. We had good linebackers and defensive backs, but we weren't so much standouts on defense as we would tackle as a team. The thing about it is we all loved to play. You had to drag most of us off the field.
   "I feel very blessed to have played there with that group of players and coaches. We played as a team. It was some great memories and I'm very thankful for them."
   As for ties to the current Warrior team there are many, the most noticeable is defensive coordinator Hack Hyder's role is now being filled by his son Greg Hyder. Many of the former Warrior players have pointed to a strong resemblance in their coaching styles.
   Another common denominator is the first round playoff opponent. Twenty-five years ago, Happy Valley faced Rogersville a team they had lost to in the regular season. Tonight's Warrior team will take on Rockwood, which likewise won over HV earlier in the year.
   The current team can hope they fare better than the previous team, as Happy Valley lost 27-6 in the regular season to Rogersville before dropping the postseason contest 41-13.
   Still, the closing moments of that game are something of Warrior lore.
   "Our last play, we were down by four touchdowns and had the ball at the 20-yard line with about 18 seconds left," Hawkins recounted. "It got down to eight seconds and I can remember calling timeout. I jogged over to Coach Verran and said, 'Coach, I just couldn't see letting it end.'"
   "He understood what I was trying to relate to him. He didn't chastise me. He said, 'Hawkins, what do you want to do?' He let me run sort of a trick play.
   "It was a quarterback throwback, a trick play we had tried earlier in the season and it almost worked for a touchdown."