What else would the former Clay County star’s favorite memory about playing in the final Clay Bowl be?
“My memory?” Staples said, parroting a reporter’s question. “Probably the game-winning interception.”
And what was learned by Lyles, the former Lineville player who threw the ill-fated pass?
“Don’t throw the ball his way,” Lyles said. “I know what he will do.”
Yes, the two principal players on opposite ends of the clinching play in Clay County’s 7-6 victory over ex-rival Lineville this past fall are now teammates, and it’s all part of the weirdness that has been Central of Clay County’s first spring practice.
Long-bitter rivals Clay County and Lineville have yet to complete the final school year as separate schools, but the team that will represent the merged school this coming fall is already at work on the field.
They began spring practice a week ago Monday on the Clay County High campus, and that’s where they will play today’s Blue-Red Game, set for 6 p.m.
Yes, blue and red — on the same uniforms.
Watch practice, and one will notice Navy-blue helmets, a la Clay County, over red jerseys, a la Lineville.
When the new team breaks a group huddle, they count to three and shout the new nickname: “Go Vols!”
No more Panthers and Aggies, just Volunteers.
The head coach running practice on Clay County’s old field is none other than Steve Giddens, the former Lineville coach.
The defensive coordinator is none other than Kris Herron, the guy who replaced Clay County legend Danny Horn and served as the Panthers’ head coach during their final three seasons of existence.
Other familiar faces include assistant coaches — five from Giddens’ Lineville staff and two from Herron’s Clay County staff. That doesn’t count small “v” volunteers from both sides.
The combined staff oversees 98 players, a count roughly evenly divided between players from the two schools. That includes returning starters from both schools competing for the same positions.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Staples said. “Everybody comes out and gives it all they got for their positions that they had at Lineville and Ashland.”
What’s been the weirdest part?
“We’re hitting each other every day of the year instead of just one night,” Staples said.
That one night was always special in Alabama high school football.
Starting in 1922, Clay County and Lineville built one of the state’s top rivalries. It grew to draw coverage from statewide media and was easily the biggest annual happening in the county.
Lineville won 54 games to Clay County’s 43, but Clay County won the emotional series finale on the very same field where Clay-Central practices this spring. The new school and field are near completion, with an official open house set for July 8.
But the two teams began thinking as one minutes after their final on-field clash. Giddens and Herron led a combined huddle with a forward-looking message — we’re all teammates now.
“We’ve known this was going to come for two good years,” Giddens said this week. “Everybody has mourned or been sad, and, now that it’s here, you’re jumping in there and wearing red, white and blue.”
Though the Clay County school board formalized Giddens’ hiring this past week, he had long been rumored as the favorite to get the job. His staff and Herron’s began planning for the transition months ago.
“Since football was over this year, we’ve been getting everything lined up for when spring practice did happen,” he said. “We’ve been working together on everything — ordering uniforms, getting kids in groups and coaches assigned spots.”
Coaches began seeing players from both schools as their own, even while those players competed in other sports for Clay County or Lineville.
“We were at a basketball game this year, and we were all on our side, three or four of us coaches, and one of their players went down pretty hard,” Giddens said. “We wanted to run out there and make sure he was OK. He was a junior and going to be coming back.”
While participants from both sides have had time to plan and get used to the idea of a merged school and the merged teams, there was still no getting around weirdness when they hit the practice field together for the first time.
Weirdness started with numbers. The coaches were used to coaching two-way players for smaller programs, and now they coach 98 players, most of whom will play either offense OR defense for a 4A program.
“That’s been our biggest adjustment, is dealing with the number of kids and not having a lot of them standing around,” Giddens said. “Back when we were 2A and 3A, you could practice with, basically, one bunch, and you had most of the kids doing something.
“Here, we’re having to change the way we do things as coaches.”
Herron said the coaches were concerned enough about early awkwardness that they locked the public out of practice, and the first day had “a funny feel to it.”
Several times, he said, coaches caught themselves referring to players as “ours” or “theirs”.
As weird as the meshing of former rivals was, it wasn’t as weird as it could have been. Everyone seemed to adjust quickly.
“The second day, the kids from Lineville started talking to the Ashland coaches and asking them questions,” Giddens said. “The kids from Ashland were talking to the Lineville coaches like they’ve been around them all their life.
“It’s just been wonderful, to be honest, to see how excited they are and just how willing they are to listen and to work on becoming the Volunteers.”
Giddens credits Herron for helping to smooth the transition, saying that Herron “campaigned” for him to get the head-coaching job.
Although Herron’s Clay County teams went 2-1 against Giddens’ Lineville teams, Herron said supporting Giddens became easy. It came down to Giddens, also Lineville’s principal, opting for coaching over administration.
“He had my support from day one, if that’s the decision he chose to make,” Herron said.
Giddens is a 1980 Clay County graduate. He and Herron coached together on the Panthers’ 1993 staff.
“I’ve been a head coach three years, and he’s been a head coach 15 years or so,” said Herron, a 19-year Clay County assistant before he became that school’s head coach. “He has so much more experience and been through a lot more in that role.
“Right now, the more experience we can have in that seat, it’s a great thing.”
They’re using their experience to turn former rivals into a team.
It’s hard to get past the awkward appearance of things — blue helmets over red jerseys, coaches from both schools as part of one staff and former rivals as teammates.
“Aw, you had to bring that up,” Lyles said with a chuckle, after Staples mentioned the clinching interception in the final Clay Bowl.
The light-hearted exchange closely followed the breakup of the day’s practice. The mesh of nearly 100 players and, coaches and school colors came together in one huddle.
Then came the one-two-three count and a loud chant, “Go Vols!”
“It feels good,” Staples said. “We’re part of the first team. What we do out here pays off on Friday nights.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.