JONESVILLE — John Cooke will be back in town this weekend. It’s an occasion he’s been looking forward to for a quarter of a century.
The former Jonesville High School football coach is returning to observe the 25th anniversary of the Bulldogs’ Group A state championship.
Cooke’s team won it all after going into the Division 1 playoffs with a 5-5 record.
“We beat a 9-1 team, a 9-2 team, a 9-3 team and a 13-0 team,” said the 73-year-old Cooke, a Chesapeake, Va., native who coached at Volunteer before taking over the Jonesville post in 1986. “We won it on Dec. 3, 1988. Every time Dec. 3 rolls around, I remember. You never forget something like this. It was amazing.”
The following June, Jonesville High School ceased to exist, absorbed by Lee High along with Dryden, Flatwoods, Keokee, and Pennington.
Brett Clark and Robbie Newman, both of whom played large roles in Jonesville’s storybook postseason run, have been the primary organizers of Saturday’s reunion. Brady Yeary, who is now boys varsity basketball coach at Lee High, is sure to be on hand.
Many of their fellow alums are scattered hither and yon. At least two — Tim Spence and Drew Bishop — are deceased.
Cooke hopes to see as many as he can when they converge upon Jonesville Middle School (site of the former high school) at 1 p.m.
“My plan is for us to walk our old field one more time as a team,” said Cooke. “There’s a Christmas Parade at 2 p.m. and we might walk in that, because in 1988 we rode on a float in that parade. Then we’re going to Cedar Hill Country Club for a reunion.”
The Bulldogs, who lost their last three games of the regular season, started their Cinderella playoff run with a 7-6 win over top-ranked Appalachia. Pete Lawson took a last-ditch pitch from quarterback Clark on the scoring run. A Spence extra point kick sealed the victory.
The following week, Jonesville upset Rye Cove 7-0 in Clinchport on a 60-yard scoring run by Yeary capped by a Spence kick.
Critics derided the consecutive victories as flukes. True believers were hard to find — even in Lee County.
During the week leading up to the half-state showdown with Rural Retreat, Cooke found himself grappling with the VHSL over the Jonesville field’s suitability as a state semifinal site.
Adding to Cooke’s woes, he stood to lose his offensive line coach when Bob Sanders was promoted to take over the Jonesville principal’s position. The previous principal, Lowell Williams, had just been appointed as principal of Lee High and would have his hands full with the impending consolidation.
“They said (Sanders) couldn’t be both principal and a coach. What a week!” said Cooke, who busied himself pleading his case to both the VHSL and school board members.
Cooke ultimately got the go-ahead to play one last game at Jonesville. The board also relented and allowed Sanders to finish the season with the team.
The Bulldogs beat the Indians 15-7 in overtime. Yeary, a sophomore running back who rushed for more than 1,000 yards, had a 4-yard scoring plunge and a 2-point conversion run in overtime for the victory. Shawn Morris had three of Jonesville’s five state-record interceptions that game.
The next week, the Bulldogs muzzled the naysayers forever with a 21-20 overtime victory against unbeaten Strasburg at Bullitt Park in Big Stone Gap.
Trailing 14-7 with 1:22 remaining, Cooke called a play named ‘the Appalachia Special.” It had been drawn up for the regular season opener with Appalachia (which Jonesville lost) but had never been used the entire season.
“We faked the power play left to Brady Yeary and handed it to tight end Mark Sweeney, who I don’t think had ever thrown a football in a varsity game,” said Cooke.
The least likely passer hit the least likely receiver — play runner Newman — for a 43-yard scoring strike. Spence’s kick tied it up at 14 to send it into overtime.
Jonesville scored first in overtime when the 6-foot-3, 235 pound Spence crashed through for an 8-yard TD run. The big man made it 21-14 with the extra point kick.
Strasburg answered with a 1-yard scoring plunge on its fourth down. The extra point failed, but a roughing the kicker penalty gave the Rams another chance. With the ball 1 1/2 yards from the goal line, Strasburg went for 2. The Jonesville defense came through, mobbing the subsequent toss sweep six yards behind the line of scrimmage.
“When people ask me how we did it, I tell them it took a lot of defense, a little bit of offense and a whole lot of heart,” Cooke said.
A year later, the Jonesville Bulldogs were no more. Cooke, a VMI player alumnus with a master’s degree from Virginia, served as a school administrator in Lee County for a while. But he couldn’t hang up the whistle for good.
IIn 1993 he went to Roanoke Catholic, which was riding a 26-game losing streak in football. He was hired as head football coach, also serving as head basketball coach and girls softball coach while teaching health, physical education and driver’s ed. He even drove the bus. And he was happy.
In 1994, he led the Celtics to the Virginia Independent Conference state championship with a 13-0 win over Broadwater Academy.
Cooke, who finally retired in 2004, is the only football coach in Virginia history to lead teams to state championships as both a public school coach and private school coach.