Weir recalls 1998 championship 20 years later

CHAMPS REUNITED — During halftime of Weir High’s game against Anacostia, Friday, at Jimmy Carey Stadium, members of the 1998 state championship team were recognized and reunited for a group photo. (Photo by Michael D. McElwain)

WEIRTON — The summer months, especially July and August, traditionally have become the time when high school class reunions are held. There was a huge reunion Friday night at Jimmy Carey Stadium when the players, coaches and administration that were in place in 1998 got together to reminisce about Weir High’s state championship football team of 20 years ago.

Spearheading the reunion was former Weir High principal, and now deputy superintendent of Hancock Schools, Dan Enich, who was an assistant coach with the 1998 team.

“We missed the 10-year reunion so we wanted to do it at 20 years,” said Enich, who became the Red Rider head coach in 1999. “I contacted the coaches and administrators and Andre Barnabei, who was an all-stater on that team, contacted the players. It was a wonderful evening Friday as there were a lot of memories floating around.

“It was nice of coach (Tony) Filberto to invite some of us into the locker room for Weir High’s pregame pep talk,” said Barnabei, who now is a vice president at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and has kept in touch with a lot of the players while locating many others via social media and contacts with family still living in Weirton. “We also had some of the players and coaches invited to midfield for the coin flip.”

John Sorrenti, long time former sports broadcaster at WEIR Radio, was the master of ceremonies for the halftime recognition of the team that included twenty-nine of the 53 players, many flying or driving to Weirton from outside of the area.

Sorrenti not only introduced the players that returned but also George Kohelis, who was Weir High principal in 1998 along with Phil Carey, the statistician, band director Ray Seifert, Joyce Znoy, a retired teacher who was the unofficial Weir High photographer, the cheerleader coaches and some of the cheerleaders, John Hollister, the trainer and others.

Sorrenti also asked for a moment of silence for one player that died, Kevin Cox, along with assistant coach Rich Santilli, public address announcer Bob Rossell and Weir High booster president Bob Gracie.

One of those that came a long way for the event was head coach Wayne Neeley, who led the Red Rider football program for seven years then retired from coaching and went into Hancock County school administration after winning the Class AA championship in 1998. He now lives in Albuquerque, NM where he is closer to his grandchildren.

“Retirement is good. I have family out there and family always has been number one for me, but I miss the people here,” said Neeley, who retired a couple of years ago after a career as assistant principal at Weir High, principal at Oak Glen and assistant superintendent of Hancock County schools with a total of36 years as a teacher and administrator. “I miss seeing everybody. There are a lot of good people in Weirton, I definitely have a lot of good memories.”

“The first thing that came to my mind when they contacted me about this reunion is that I’m old. It’s been 20 years. I have a lot of vivid memories about this team. All good memories. I think about it often and look back. You know what, we had good athletes, good coaches, good community and good administrative support. That’s what it takes to win. It’s not a one man show and never has been. With good athletes, good coaches and all that support, it all came together in 1998.

“Prior to that, we were playing a lot of those kids as sophomores and we went 1-9. But you could see them growing. In 1997 we went 10-3 and the kids just had that feeling that next year was unfinished business after we lost in the semi-finals to Bluefield. We had a lot of senior leadership and a lot of good players and coaches to go with that. We had great results and I have a lot of memories.”

Quincy Wilson was the star of that 14-0 team breaking his own season rushing record with 3,262 yards. Wilson went on to star at West Virginia University and was drafted into the National Football League by the Cincinnati Bengals. He also played for the Atlanta Falcons.

“I was excited when they first contacted me about this reunion,” said Wilson, who now is running backs coach at West Virginia State. “I didn’t know my schedule and I didn’t want to commit to anything, but if there was any chance I could make it I was going to be here. When the schedule came out and I saw we had a Thursday game it worked out perfect.

“This will be the first time I will actually see a game in this new stadium. I’m just excited. It is great to be back with these guys, the stories we have to tell after 20 years. I just remember how connected we were. We had great togetherness since we were seven or eight years old. We played with the Weirton Little Steelers, Weir middle. A lot of us played as freshmen and sophomores at Weir High when we were 1-9. Finally our junior year, we took that leap and then we were like, we’re going to take it now. We had that attitude.

“Coach Neeley told us that if this is what you want, you have to go after it. The coaches pushed us. We thought we practiced harder than anybody. We thought we played harder than everybody and the next thing you know you’re 14-0. Twenty years go fast, but it’s good to get back and see the coaches and all the guys that are still doing well and could make it back tonight.”

Wilson said he would love some day to be a head coach either in college or high school.

“That’s the ultimate goal; to run my own program,” he said. “I’m the running backs coach at West Virginia State now. This is my third year of actual coaching. I did four years of operations at WVU. I kind of got the grasp of a program — of how the academics, recruiting, nutrition, parents and all that goes into what makes a successful program.

“Right now, I’m loving what I do. I’m coaching with one of my best friends, John Paden. I played with him at WVU and we’re trying to get that program turned around. We had a tough game last night but we’re looking forward to the opportunity next week.

John Hollister has been on the Weir High training staff for 21 years and was a key person in the 1998 run.

“It has been a lot of fun,” said Hollister, a Weir High graduate who still works hard to keep the Red Rider athletes of all sports healthy and able to play. “I began when these guys were 1-9 then 10-3 and 14-0. To see their development was incredible. We knew in that era we had a pretty special group and it was a lot of fun to watch.

“One of the things I remember most was the semi-finals game against Magnolia at Brooke High School where we had to play because the old Jimmy Carey didn’t qualify for playoffs at that time. While we were warming up before the game, someone plugged in a hot chocolate machine at the concession stand and the whole place went black. We had coaches screaming for players to try to get them to our sideline so nothing could happen. Looking out toward the river, all you could see were headlights of cars trying to get into the stadium. It was a really neat scene.”

After they got the lights back on, the No. 2 ranked Red Riders beat Magnolia 20-7 to gain the berth in the state championship game against No. 1 Dupont. Weir High prevailed at Wheeling Island Stadium 20-17.

Like every football team, it is the linemen that do a lot of the work and are as important to the team as the skill players. They are the unsung heroes of something like a state championship team. There were many, but one who returned for the reunion is Scott Jones, who had his young son with him. Jones now lives in Moundsville and is an accountant at Wheeling Hospital.

“I helped to open some of the holes for Quincy (Wilson), but he was the star,” said Scott, who played as a two-way tackle at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. “I remember everything about that championship game including what I ate that morning.”

Scott summed up what all the former players were saying: “It was awesome.”