Remembering North Marion's 1981 Title Run, 40 Years Later

Oct. 31—FAIRMONT — Coming into the 1981 football season, North Marion was riding high. After a 1980 state title victory over Brooke, North had overcome many tough opponents — and had overcome early difficulties within their program.

The school, a product of five schools consolidated into one where players who were used to facing off against one another as rivals had to get accustomed to being teammates.

"All consolidation schools have that problem," Roy Michael, head coach at North Marion from 1979 to 1990, said. "Kids coming together from all around. We just made it very clear that when we get out on the practice field, we're looking for football players. You might wear your letterman's jacket that's blue and gold from Barrackville or green from Mannington, but when you're on that field you're wearing black and silver."

"We came together as one from five different schools," Todd Mullenax, a member of the 1980 state championship team, said. "That was a difficulty just to begin with. But once we saw we could meld together and become one team, it was easier to understand what coach was trying to get across to us. That gave us the opportunity to be successful. And what we had was a bunch of guys that wanted to work hard."

Having firmly established themselves as a team, North Marion marched through the regular season in 1981, earning a near-spotless record except for one loss against Magnolia Springs to finish 9-1. Yet, despite their strong performances, the sentiment around the team seemed to be that they were a notch below the 1980 team.

"In 1980, we graduated 25 seniors," Michael said. "And on this [1981] team, we only had eleven seniors, and only five had played any meaningful football for us. Eighty and '82 is when we had our best athletes, but that's why '81 we weren't expected to do that well with only five seniors who had lettered."

"It was a small team," Brad King, a junior running back in 1981, said. "But we had some talent. We were just a small unit, small in size, small numbers."

"We weren't very big — the 1980 team was big, the first year we won it. My junior year, I think Barry Phillips was our biggest guy, I think 218 pounds. We weren't that big, but they played hard, played tough," King said.

Despite their loss to Magnolia Springs, North still did enough to win the Big 10. Yet, when the playoff rankings came, North was a five seed, while county rival West Fairmont was a two seed. The two teams had duked it out in the regular season, and North had come out on top.

"The reason we'd dropped in the rankings was because we'd lost to Magnolia," King said. "And I'd missed two games, because in the West Fairmont game, I'd fractured my jaw."

"Anyway, we'd lost that [Magnolia] game, I was hurt, we weren't at full strength, as far as the running game. We still knew West was the team to beat. They were tough that first game and we knew we'd probably be seeing them if the stars lined up right at some point in the playoffs."

Entering the playoffs without home field advantage, even in the first round, North's first challenge would be hitting the road to face Parkersburg. Accordingly, the crowd was none too kind to the visiting Huskies.

"Our kids, we always went out to warm up with just our pants, shirt, but no pads underneath," Michael said. "So we go out to Parkersburg — and they're big time, they're huge — our kids weren't really big, they were just tough. And a lot of the fans in the stands start yelling 'When are you going to bring your varsity out? Where's your varsity?'"

"They were laughing at us because we weren't very big," King said.

"But the coaches wouldn't let us think for a minute that we didn't have a chance."

"We were going out to warm up, throw passes and things like that," Michael said. "And they were laughing at us. But they weren't laughing when the game was over."

Parkersburg was led by Scott Schenerlein, a talented running back that was the top focus of the Huskies' defense.

"The defense played outstanding," King said. "They held Schenerlein to 10 carries, 35 yards. They only had seven first downs. Our defense, those guys were tough. I had to play against them every day in practice. They weren't big but they were tough."

"It was on the road, and you don't know what's going to happen going on the road in the playoffs," Cliff Nichols, a Times West Virginian sports reporter in 1981, said. "But they went to Parkersburg and they played very well and came out with the win. They played particularly well on defense, ran the ball very well, and most impressively was just going to Parkersburg, a very big school, on the road, and were able to get things started with a win."

North Marion quarterback Keith Dodd finished 12-13 passing that game, as the senior played a key role for the 1981 Huskies.

"I remember when you looked at him you might say 'Ah, this isn't some huge guy,'" Nichols said. "But he was a very smart, technician-type of a quarterback. He wasn't going to hurt your team, he was going to help you win."

"Keith Dodd might've been the toughest kid on that team," King said. "You couldn't hurt Keith, if you hit him as hard as you could, he'd get up and laugh. Even though he had a bad knee, he'd put his head down and try to run over you."

"He had a huge brace on his leg, from his ankle clear up to his hip," Michael said.

"He had a football mind, he was like a coach on the field, and he was always that way. He might not have looked the part but he sure performed the part. [12-13] was normal for him, he wouldn't throw interceptions, usually he was right on the money."

North won 20-7. Hard work and dedication, it seemed, was a prime characteristic of that 1981 team. And, like most teams, they took after their coach.

"That 1980 season taught us that if we listened to him and the other coaches," King said, "and practiced hard, watched film, and learned about the other team and ran plays over and over — last time I saw him I told him the five words I hated to hear, and I heard it all the time because we ran plays over and over again, the words were 'Line up, run it again.' We would run plays over and over and over until they were perfect."

"I couldn't feel my legs some nights we ran so many plays over and over again. I remember coach getting in trouble because he'd keep us late during the playoff run he had kept us so late he'd turned the lights on. Got some complaints from parents, I believe, that kids were getting home too late because of the football team."

"If you wanted to go talk to him before the days with cell phones, you could call him pretty late at night at North Marion High School from the film room," Nichols said. "An actual film room back then not digital video, there were reels of film. And coach really studied film on any opponent, he'd know exactly what the other team was going to do."

"Coach always broke down the film and studied all the habits of the opposing team to help us be able to execute both offensively and defensively," Charlie Ross, a senior on the 1981 team, said.

"He worked really hard, he and all the coaches did. As a team, we all worked hard together, and that was the most important thing for our success."

"We did some crazy things, because we weren't very good!" Michael said. "So we had to make them think they were good. We would practice late, until we got it right."

"I know you've been to North Marion, but you've probably never been to the old Farmington field. It's about four miles away down in Farmington, and that's where we practiced because we didn't have a field up there [...] We would practice in the morning at Farmington, ride the bus up to eat lunch at North Marion cafeteria, maybe have some chalkboard work, and then we would walk down over the right-of-way over 250, and we would run from there back about three and a half, four miles. And then we would practice again in the afternoon. We did that to try and convince them that they were invincible."

The Huskies' hard work would need to pay off in the second round, where North traveled up to the state capital to play Charleston, the top-seeded school in Class-AAA. And the conditions were far from pristine.

"It was a snowstorm," Nichols said.

In addition to the elements, North had to battle another talented running back, this time one even more highly-touted.

"They had this great running back, Rod Gore," King said. "And that whole week prior, and this is what the coaches did to us, they kept telling the defense 'Oh, you guys are afraid you're going to get gored, Rod Gore is going to run over you guys.' and they would taunt us like that, taunt the defense, saying they're going to get gored."

"Our kids were pretty tough and they liked a challenge," Michael said. "And I went and told them 'Now boys, you've got to be real careful when we're playing defense. Now this back, he's really good, you might want to just step to the side so he doesn't hurt you, so he doesn't run over you.' Well that's all I had to say. If you check back, I think Gore fumbled the ball the first three times he had it. And that's cause they knocked the [expletive] out of him."

"He had 11 carries for 20 yards," King said. "They only had four first downs the whole game. It was a cold night, and we were from North Central West Virginia, and we had a lot of tough kids. We didn't let the cold weather bother us, and I think Charleston did. We just overwhelmed them."

In addition to their defense, the Huskies' special teams shined through too, as Junior Dobbs two blocked punts.

"Not by accident, he'll tell you that," Michael said. "We'd watched it on film, the punter took three steps, and the center had had trouble getting the ball back to him all year and that was by design. Plus, Junior was good at that. He was big tall, long arms, and very athletic, very quick."

"Junior was a heck of an athlete, another guy I grew up with in Grant Town," King said. "Junior and Keith and I grew up together and he was one of the seniors. Junior could jump through the roof, he was a good basketball player, hurdler. [...] Junior was ready, and that's how he got those two blocked punts, coach drilled it into our heads that Junior was going to go get that ball."

North blanked Charleston in the state semifinals, 27-0. Two down, one to go for the Huskies. Their opponent would be the number two seed in Class-AAA — the West Fairmont Polar Bears.

"The only team in the state that we wanted to beat was West Fairmont," Terry Hamilton, a sophomore on the 1981 team, said. "They were our biggest rival."

The town was abuzz for the rare cross-county state championship game. Though the game would take place on Laidley Field in Charleston, that did not hurt the turnout.

"Going down to the game there were signs from Farmington all the way to Charleston," Michael said.

"A really good crowd from Marion County made its way south down to Charleston to actually be at that game," Nichols said. "And the two coaches, Bob DeLorenzo and Roy Michael, both products of the school system in Marion County — Roy Michael came out of Rivesville, and Bob Delorenzo was coaching his alma mater, he graduated from Fairmont Senior."

For North, their defense would once again face a challenging running game. This time though, there was double the trouble for the Huskies' defense. West Fairmont had two dangerous runners, Rick Toothman and Roy Sumlin Jr.

"Fairmont Senior, they were loaded that year," King said. "They had a lot of talent coming back. Some good young people like Roy Sumlin, I think he was a sophomore that year. They were picked to win the Big 10 that year."

"Our whole defense was designed and set up to stop [Toothman and Sumlin Jr.] from running."

"They were good, they were tough-nosed runners, but we had a good defense."

November 28, 1981, in front of nearly 10,000 people in Charleston, the North Marion Huskies and West Fairmont Polar Bears took the field. Behind a nearly 150-yard game on the ground from King, two touchdowns from receiver Quint Nicholson, and a battle-tested defense, North prevailed, 21-6.

"It was a competitive game if I remember correctly," Nichols said. "North Marion played very well, the score was a very similar score to what they'd had in the past, not a high-scoring game for North Marion but they were very sound defensively and they finished the job. North played well and was able to get the win, win back-to-back state championships."

"It was a hard fought game even though it was 21-6," King said.

"We weren't overconfident, we were taught and coached not to be that way, we just had to outwork them and I think that's what we did, because they were bigger than we were. We had to out-quick them."

Repeating as state champions three years into your school's history elicited quite the reaction from the Huskies who had made the trip up to the capital.

"I just remember Joe Demus, one of my best friends, his dad and my dad came into the locker room," King said. "People were coming into the locker room, we were trying to get dressed! There were girls in there so we had to keep our clothes on, people were coming in to the locker rooms, everybody was so excited that we had won another state title, back-to-back. We had the best fans, I would be remiss not to say."

"We were elated, and we just felt that all our hard work was going to pay off," Michael said.

Yet, despite the rivalry on the field, there was not too much bad blood between the communities.

"It was a good, friendly rivalry," King said. "We never really fought with those guys, we'd see them out and about at places, we were all friendly and a lot of us are friends to this day. We talk about this stuff, we laugh about it. It was just the county boys who were used to playing against each other and we kind of knew what to expect."

"I did my student teaching under [West Fairmont coach] Bob DeLorenzo," Michael said. "He's a distant cousin of my wife, so it was all in the family. We were all good friends, so there was no animosity or hard feelings at all. We knew one of us was going to be state champion and if they'd have won I would've been happy for Bob. I think he was happy for us."

Forty years later, and the 1981 team is still being remembered. The 1980 and 1981 teams were both recognized before Friday's North Marion vs. Frankfort game. For the night, the unforgettable successes of the early 80's brought were back into the forefront of the community.

"To have two teams from one county, to be able to get through some very good competition and meet in the state championship, very memorable year no question about it," Nichols said.

"The first day I ever worked at the paper, the Monday of the first week of football practice, and my assignment that night was to call the four coaches. Gary McCutcheon at East Fairmont, the school I went to. The coach at North Marion was Roy Michael, the guy I watched at Fairmont State growing up. The coach at West Fairmont was Bob DeLorenzo, who was the coach there back when I was at the school across the river, at East watching the games. And the coach at Rivesville was Frank Moore who, of course, I knew from growing up in Marion County. So to say the least it was a great first day of working at the Times, getting to talk to those four."

"You had Dave Hickman, Cliff Nichols, Kevin Smith," King said. "The coverage we got back then in high school sports was unbelievable. I have all my scrapbooks and the articles that those three wrote about the high school teams were just remarkable when you look back on it, the coverage we got just as local high school teams."

For Michael, the back-to-back titles provided some relief. Moving from the head football coach position at Mannington to man the helm at an entirely new school, the coach had a daunting task before him.

"I was scared to death to tell you the truth," Michael said of starting at North Marion. "I started out at Mannington in 1971, and I was the dumbest coach alive. I made more mistakes than you could shake a stick at. Finally I realized the mistakes I was making the third year. Still had a losing season, finally got things straightened out coaching at a high school level, stopped trying to change offenses every week, like I said I made every mistake in the book. And we just started coaching basic fundamentals and execution, doing the things that I finally realized needed to be done and from that fourth year on we did OK. Got to the playoffs that year.

"We had pretty good success. But still I thought, here I am, little old country boy, coming from a single-A school, and I'm in charge of this humongous new school. Kids coming from all over, we had 100 kids come out for football and we had a full-fledged freshman team as well with about 40 kids on it. And here I am in charge of organizing all this stuff. I was scared to death."

"Sometimes fear makes you work hard."

The hard work, long nights, injuries, blood, sweat and tears of those coaches and players made North Marion a powerhouse right from its inception. Forty years later, they still have the memories.

"You wish you could go back, I do," King said. "It would be nice to go back and relive some of that again, some of the greatest memories of my life came from playing football with those guys and for those coaches."

"The friendships that we have now mean as much to all of us as they did back then," Charlie Ross said.

"It's funny, I can't remember where I put my keys but I can remember almost every game, almost every thing that happened in them," Michael said. "Guys will come and visit me who played for me, and we'll sit out on the porch and relive them. It was a lot of fun."

Reach Nick Henthorn at 304-367-2548 or by email at nhenthorn@timeswv.com.