QUICKSBURG — Bonds that lasted a lifetime.
That’s what Stonewall Jackson’s football team created in 1996 when they had one of the most successful seasons in school history. The 1996 team advanced to the state semifinals for the first time in program history and went 10-3 on the year. They did it with a strong combination of seniors and juniors and led by a coach who would go on to become a legend in the area.
Stonewall Jackson was coming off a 5-5 season and even though some may not have expected the Generals to have success in 1996, the team knew it was capable of doing well. Seth Coffman, who was a junior on that squad, said that the team felt like it had been working toward something the previous years.
“I think we knew we had something good,” Coffman said. “(We) had a real good group of seniors and we had been all playing together for a couple years, working out a lot during the summer together, throwing the football, hitting the weight room. It just felt like we had a pretty good group of folks, that we had an opportunity to win some games and be competitive.”
There hadn’t been a whole lot of winning at Stonewall Jackson until Dick Krol arrived in 1987. In 1994 the Generals advanced to the playoffs for the first time after a 7-3 regular season but lost in the first round of the postseason.
After missing the postseason in 1995, quarterback Jason Lutz, who was a junior on the 1996 team, said that they felt like the next year was going to be a good one.
Part of that success came from the offseason workouts and lifting weights during the summer. Josh Mason, who was a senior on the 1996 squad, would take players to and from the workouts in his tiny car so they could lift weights.
“There was a group of probably a half dozen to a dozen of us that worked about every day all the way through the summer and even practiced our offense without the coaches, because back then you couldn’t do that type of thing,” Mason said. “But I had a little Subaru Justy. That nowadays I would probably get in trouble with law enforcement with the number of kids that I would pile into that car, and take back and forth to the weight room to make sure everybody had an opportunity to get in there. But I was a little chauffeur back in those days.”
Coffman said that the leadership of Mason and the seniors really helped the junior class understand what they needed to do in future years.
“I think that went back to the kind of leadership of Jimmy (Woods) and Josh’s (Mason) class of recognizing that we have a chance to be good,” Coffman said. “But there’s also a lot of players underneath that, that we need to make sure they understand the work ethic it takes. So their leadership, I think, bled down. So you end up having several years of success coming off of that ‘96 season.”
The Generals started the season well, going 7-1, the only defeat a six-point loss to a solid Wilson Memorial squad.
One of the things that stood out about the first eight games was the defense. Stonewall Jackson was allowing only an average of eight points a game for the first eight games of the year. They had three shutouts, and entering a key matchup against rival Strasburg, they had allowed just 12 points in their last four contests.
A big key to the success of the defense was Stonewall Jackson’s defensive line, which consisted of Jimmy Woods, Darren Steadman, Jon Ford and Stanley Ryan.
“We were really quick for linemen, but we were really small,” Woods said. “I gave up 100 pounds (to my opposing linemen) on a lot of games. We just all had that confidence we would make it somehow, and we would all get on the same page somehow.”
Mason said that the success and mentality they had on defense came from Krol, who loved defense.
“Coach Krol, that was his specialty,” Mason said. “He drove the mentality with the kids on just hard-nosed football and making sure you knew your assignments, making sure that we were all in it together. So every team that coach Krol ever had, had a good defense. We just had kids with a nose for the ball, a really good line that was able to get a lot of sacks. We were able to put a lot of pressure with the defense up front and then we were pretty talented defensive backs. Top to bottom, we didn’t have a whole lot of weaknesses on defense.”
As the success continued throughout the season, the excitement grew and grew at Stonewall Jackson High School and in the community.
Lutz said that it was special seeing how much support the team was getting as the wins started piling up.
“You always hear these stories about these towns that shut down on Friday nights, and I really think that back in those days that actually really happened — like everybody was here,” Lutz said.
The Generals rolled through Bull Run District competition and that set up the biggest game of the regular season on Nov. 1 against Shenandoah County rival Strasburg.
Turning the tide
Woods said he could remember vividly the moment he realized how good the Generals could be in 1996. He said it was during the defensive practice day for the regular-season meeting against Strasburg.
“We lined up on defensive day for the first Strasburg game and we did nothing special,” Woods said. “And I was like we’re good and (Krol) wants to see how good we are, because he knows we’re going to see them again. (We didn’t) throw in all the wrinkles and all of the stunts and ‘you follow this guy,’ and all the special things we’ve done against Strasburg every year that I could always remember. I’ll never forget when we lined up in defensive practice and we didn’t do any of that and I was like he knows we’re good and he wants to see how good we are from just playing and then we’ll go from there.”
Strasburg had a powerhouse football program at the time. The Rams were undefeated on the season and had made it to the state finals the year before. Strasburg had been in the state finals four times in the previous nine years.
Things didn’t go Stonewall Jackson’s way in the 1996 regular season contest against Strasburg. The Rams won 38-18, but despite the loss, the Generals had confidence and believed they would see the Rams again — and they did.
Three weeks later in the Region B final the two squads would meet again. This time a state berth was on the line.
Woods said as soon as they started the defensive practice that week for the Rams, he knew they were going to be OK.
“As soon as we did defensive practice that week and I saw how different it was than the first time we played them,” Woods said when asked if he thought they could win. “I walked away from our defensive practice that week and I said ‘we got this.’”
Woods said it wasn’t that the Generals changed much from their alignment, but they had different reads to make on plays than the previous time and it made a big difference.
Lutz threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Mason for a 7-0 lead in the opening quarter and that helped set the tone for the rest of the game.
“I remember when Jason (Lutz) hit Josh Mason on that long pass down the middle and I think that one really boosted our confidence,” Coffman said. “We got out, we were ahead. We knew if we can stay ahead we can keep them on the ropes and we were able to do that.”
The Generals led the entire game. Leading 14-8 in the final minutes, the Generals put the game out of reach. One of the biggest plays of the game was almost a disaster.
Lutz said a timeout was called right before the play that sealed the win and Krol had some instructions for him.
“The whole offense went over to the sideline and coach Krol said ‘don’t drop this ball,’” Lutz said. “That’s the only thing he did the whole time. He didn’t talk to anybody else. He just talked to me. He said ‘if it’s there you take it. You do the quarterback sneak. Hold on to the ball.’ That’s what he said and I’ll be (darned) if I didn’t walk out there and fumble the ball.”
Lutz fumbled the ball, but teammate and Generals’ junior running back Freddie Rios picked it up and ran it in for a 20-yard touchdown. The play helped give the Generals a 21-8 victory and the program’s first-ever state berth.
“We knew if we got that first down it was probably going to be game over,” Lutz said. “That’s why (Krol) was so emphatic about it ‘hold onto the football. That’s all you need to do on this play.’ I did exactly what he told me not to do and it worked out good.”
The win was not only huge because it put the Generals in the state semifinals, but also because they had defeated powerhouse and county rival Strasburg.
“It kind of reset the landscape of football in the county,” Coffman said. “Where for years it had been just Strasburg, Strasburg, Strasburg, Strasburg. I think it kind of reset it and then you saw it balance out. My brother graduated in 2000 and they had a great (overtime) win (over Strasburg in the playoffs). I think that it kind of leveled the playing field between us and Strasburg after that ‘96 season, beating them in the playoffs.”
The Generals would win five of their next eight matchups against Strasburg over the next seven years.
Stonewall Jackson’s season would come to a heartbreaking end in the state semifinals. They would fall to Surry County, 15-14, on a last-second field goal.
The two programs would have a short rivalry of their own as they met in the state semifinals three out of four years.
Surry County had not attempted a field goal or extra point all season, but made a 37-yard field goal to win the game in 1996.
Mason said even as Surry County was lining up for the field goal, no one on Stonewall’s sideline really thought they were going to attempt it.
“That’s definitely something I’ll never forget,” Mason said of the Surry County field goal. “Coach Krol had given me free will that game to basically break off of pass coverage and rush at any point. I used it a couple times early in the game and when they lined up for that field goal I had a shot. I just didn’t believe that they were actually going to kick it. They hadn’t kicked all season, hadn’t even made an attempt. I just thought there was no way in the world they were actually going to kick it. I thought it was going to be a fake. So I pulled back expecting a pass and (the kick) went through the uprights.”
A lifetime bond
Woods, who has been an assistant coach at Stonewall Jackson for the last 15 years, said the chemistry on the team was one of the things that set the team apart.
“No one was greedy,” Woods said. “No one thought of themselves first. Just like every successful story you hear in sports, it starts with a very successful, very special group of people. A very special group with a very special relationship. That’s one of the things I try to tell our kids today is you don’t read about Super Bowl champions stating everyone hated each other, ‘we never talked but we were just so good we won anyway.’ That’s never the start of a championship story.”
The 1996 team started a trend as the Generals went to the state semifinals two of the next three years.
All the players agreed a big part of the success also came from the coaching staff, led by Krol. Stonewall Jackson’s football field was renamed Dick Krol Field at General Stadium two years ago.
“I’m very, very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for him and learn from him,” Mason said of Krol. “And all the coaches that built that program — coach (Todd) Fannin (Keith) Cubbage (Dave) Sherwood. Krol, he really cared about the kids. It wasn’t just about winning on the football field, it was about us becoming better men and preparing ourselves for life later. And I continued that friendship all the way up until he passed away. Spending some time with him in the summers and still having the opportunity to talk to him whenever I had the chance. And he’ll be somebody I’ll forever miss.”
Mason lives near Denver, Colorado, but every year he makes the trip to Virginia to fish with some of his teammates from the 1996 football team. Until last year, when he passed away, Krol also joined the group of former players to fish in Rural Retreat.
Mason said the bond that the team created in 1996 has never gone away.
“It was a brotherhood,” he said. “We trusted each other. There’s still best friends that I have today from that team. Some of us from that team get together every year to fish and we used to take coach Krol every year when he was still with us. So it was kind of a lifelong thing. It wasn’t just that season. But I think we were able to create a bond and it didn’t seem like work as much it was going out and having a good time and being together and enjoying each other’s company.”