By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
This column is a tribute to the Honaker Tigers. For the many readers on the West Virginia portion of the Daily Telegraph coverage area, you might not even know where Honaker is. (It is just off 460, between Richlands and Lebanon).
For those on the Virginia side, they’ll tell you that Honaker is the home of the red bud, Heath Miller and Honaker athletics.
It’s not just football. Honaker won the state baseball title on the diamond in 2011, captured a softball championship in 1988, and even reached the state semifinals in boys basketball a few years back.
Tom Harding, who has been the baseball coach at Honaker going on 43 years, was finally able to win the big one. Doug Hubbard, who is in his 30th season at his alma mater, would like nothing more than to bring a state football championship back to Russell County.
Honaker will get that chance on Saturday when the Tigers (13-1) travel to Salem to face nearby George Wythe (13-1) for the Group A, Division 1 state title.
I was able to see the Maroons win a championship in 2002. I was able to see Honaker play for it all in 2000, but they fell short.
Hubbard, who is the winner of the year’s Pocahontas Coal Association/Bluefield Daily Telegraph coach of the year award, played at Honaker, Lees-McRae and East Tennessee State — when they had a football team — and returned as the Honaker head coach in 1982.
After a few lean years Hubbard slowly began to have success. Yet, Honaker hadn’t reached the state semifinals since he was a player in a loss to Parry McCluer in 1977. He led the Tigers there again in 1999, but fell short by three points to Floyd County.
Getting back to the state title game has taken 12 years, but here is hoping the Honaker can fix the one blemish on Hubbard’s resume and bring the Tigers a state championship.
While everyone in this area knows all about Bluefield native Ahmad Bradshaw and the impact he had at Graham and Marshall, Honaker has their own success story.
Many of our readers are fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers so they know all about Heath Miller. He was also standout for three seasons at the University of Virginia, and is one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Miller broke his arm during his freshman season at Honaker, but over his final three seasons with the Tigers, he led the Tigers to a 32-6 record.
Honaker won two Region D titles — they were an overtime loss to Clintwood and future Virginia Tech standout Justin Hamilton from making it three — two Black Diamond District crowns, made two state semifinal appearances and finally reached the Division 2 state championship game in 2000, losing to King William on a brutally cold day in Lynchburg 25-15.
That just happened to be the year I was able to finally leave my post as a police reporter at a similar publication in Bristol and move over to sports. That is still one of the happiest moments of my life.
I know the cops beat is a necessity, but it can more boring than watching a political debate. I used to pass the time by talking sports with the Bristol detectives and I read lots of books.
The philosophy of the news department at that time was to have the police reporter ready at all times to head to the scene of a crime. Since Bristol and the surrounding areas — fortunately — didn’t have a thriving community of criminals, there was lots of free time.
That wouldn’t be quite as much of a problem here, but thank goodness those days are over.
Anyone will tell you I don’t like free time. I will find something to do if you let me do it.
When I finally got my wish — and I had only recently interviewed with another area newspaper — Honaker and Miller fell into my lap. My “beats” were the Lonesome Pine District — which is still some of the best football I have ever been around — and the Black Diamond District, and it just happened to be Miller’s senior season.
What a year it was. Miller and the Tigers went 13-0 before losing in the finals to the Cavaliers. He had pretty much made up his mind to go to the University of Virginia as a quarterback. He was focused on his senior season, and what a season it was.
I didn’t get to see all of Miller’s games that season, but I did follow him through the playoffs and what a performer he was.
What I remember most about those playoffs was not only Miller’s performance, but it was brutally cold four Saturday’s in a row. It might warm up during the week, but you can guarantee it would be bitterly cold on Saturday.
Ironically, the Saturday after the title game? A perfect 60 degrees and sunny.
Miller twisted his knee in the state semifinal win over Giles on another cold afternoon and all anyone wanted to know heading into the next game was about Miller’s condition.
He was fine. What hurt Honaker in the state championship game was that the Cavaliers shut down Neil Sample and the Tigers’ run game, Miller had difficulty throwing the ball and completing passes in the conditions, and King William’s Leslie “Tank” Washington played like a tank, running for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
There were tears and hugs all around as the final seconds clicked down. Miller knew his football days would continue, and was confident he would do fine at Virginia.
His comment to me after that game: “I’ve got a lot to learn before I contribute up there, but I think I can do it.”
He thought right. Miller was moved to tight end by Al Groh, who thought he could be an NFL caliber player at that position, and it turns out he was right. (Did you know the last time Virginia beat Virginia Tech, Miller was still a Cavalier?)
Miller redshirted one season and then became the best tight end the ACC has ever seen. He is now one of the better tight ends in the NFL, especially now that the Steelers have finally decided to throw him the ball.
While life has moved on and 12 years has passed, Hubbard is still on the Honaker sidelines. The Tigers have been a model of consistency even without Miller, and they’ve been able to win 13 out of 14 games this year — losing only to Division 3 Richlands — with one more to go.
How far has the program come? Honaker had to drive a bus to UVa-Wise and borrow turf shoes in 2000. Now the Tigers have their own turf field thanks to the same folks who helped build the fine facility at Richlands.
Hubbard was unable to attend the Player of the Year banquet on Tuesday, but he had a good reason. What coach wouldn’t have wanted to be preparing for a state championship game?
He has a roster with 15 seniors, including Ty Hall, who has eclipsed Miller’s record for passing yards in a season and needs one more score to do the same for touchdowns through the air.
I can still recall Hubbard’s comments — thanks to having clippings from many of my articles over the years — after that lost to King William.
“I’m really proud of my kids, especially the seniors,” Hubbard said. “I just hate that we didn’t get it done today.”
Here is hoping the Tigers can it done this Saturday.
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He can be contacted at email@example.com