INSTITUTE, W.Va. — When Brian Thomas was offered the chance to coach the North Bears in Saturday’s North-South Football Classic, he didn’t think twice.
“It kind of always has been a goal and I’m really lucky that I got the call this year,” Thomas said Tuesday during the annual event’s media day at West Virginia State University. “It was a no brainer that I wanted to do this and be in this game, without a doubt.”
Thomas, the head football coach at Musselman for the last decade, is in the midst of preparing for Saturday’s noon matchup at South Charleston High School.
Tuesday marked the third day of week-long practices and activities leading up to the game, and though Thomas arrived in Institute with a strong understanding of the North’s talent, he’s been somewhat taken aback by the quality of person from the recent high school graduates.
“I knew coming into this week that everybody in this room are the best players in the state and I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to coach some of the best players,” Thomas said. “The thing I’ve been blown away with is the young men that they’ve been. These guys on my staff can tell you the same thing. We’ve been told, ‘yes sir’ so many times. With the politeness and manners that they have, there’s a reason that they’re the best players in the state — because a lot of them are the best young men in the state.”
Thomas and the North will oppose a South Cardinals squad being coached by Spring Valley’s Brad Dingess.
Dingess has led of one of the state’s premier programs over the last decade, though he says coaching the all-star event is nothing like what he does with the Timberwolves.
“It’s a lot different than coaching a regular season,” Dingess said. “There’s no young guys. You have guys that are two, three and four-year starters that have played a lot of big football games. All these guys are winners. It’s been fun.”
With the surplus of experience most members of both rosters have on the gridiron at the prep level, Dingess and his staff — which is comprised of Huntington head coach Billy Seals, Huntington assistant coach Ray Brooks and SVHS assistant coach Trevor Stacy — have been able to move through things at a quick pace.
“Our guys are sponges and they take everything in,” Dingess said. “Their football IQ is very high. You kind of draw out practice plans for the week and [Monday] we pretty much got in what I planned on the whole week. It’s a little bit advanced. I’m anxious to see once we start doing full contact in practice.”
Both coaches talked at length Tuesday about there being little to no separation between members of both teams regardless of what school is being represented.
Of the 33 players listed on the South roster, 14 played at the Class AAA level, including three from Dingess’ Spring Valley team. Of the remaining 19, nine played at Class AA schools and 10 are from Class A.
“There’s not any difference between any of the players as far as what class or what school they play in,” Dingess said. “It’s just bigger schools have more kids. It’s not talent — it’s depth at that level. Some of these guys go a little unseen and that’s what I’m excited about, getting to see some of these kids that I haven’t really gotten to see in person. If they play like they’ve been practicing, they’re going to be fun to watch.”
Of the North’s 31 players, 13 are from Class AA schools and nine apiece from Class AAA and Class A. Thomas’ North staff features a trio of assistants from all three classes in Moorefield’s Matt Altobello, Roane County’s Paul Burdette and Hampshire’s Aaron Rule.
Like Dingess, the Applemen head coach has taken notice to players representing smaller schools than the one he coaches during the fall.
“There’s so many small school kids on both teams that could play for anybody who I didn’t know being a Triple-A coach,” Thomas said. “People say Single A football or even Double A football is at a lower level and it’s not. There is so much talent out there. We have guys that played for small Single A schools that would’ve been multi-year starters for us at Musselman that are great football players. I’m just blown away by the talent.
“I was probably most nervous for that most practice coming in and not knowing all these guys personally. But getting to see them, we’ve evaluated them pretty quick and tried to put them in positions where they can be successful.”