Flashback Friday: James Wood delivered a state title in its first year in Group AAA

Donnie Barton was sitting in a car with football teammate and fellow senior Roger Gilmer, eating hamburgers in the parking lot of the McDonald’s on Valley Avenue, when the news came over the radio — the James Wood football team was the 1970 Virginia High School League Group AAA state champions.

Those Colonels are the last of their kind. In 1970, the first year of the VHSL’S three-classification system, Group AA and Group A held state football tournaments, but Group AAA did not. The playoffs for the state’s largest classification featured four regional championship games, and that was it. Ever since 1971, state tournaments have been held in every classification until just one team was left standing as state champion.

The players on that James Wood team wish they could have participated in a state tournament. But that was out of their control.

What they could control was how they performed every time they took the football field, and no one in Group AAA did it better. The Colonels (10-0-1) were awarded that 1970 state title because they were the only undefeated Group AAA regional champion.

James Wood outgained its opponents by an average of almost 160 yards per game (350.1-190.5) and outscored them by an average of nearly 20 points per game (29.6-10.2).

Only Handley (9-0-1) prevented the third unbeaten and untied season in the Colonels’ 21-year history at that point — the two teams played to their famous 22-22 tie in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 people at James Wood’s previous field on Amherst Street on Nov. 7. (Regular-season overtime did not exist then.)

The Colonel players wanted to go for two points against the Judges when they pulled within 22-21 on a touchdown with 2:09 left, and felt confident they could convert the opportunity. But they later found out that athletic director James Casey and head coach Walter Barr knew a tie would give the Colonels a playoff berth over the Judges based on a superior VHSL power rating (just .03 of a point), so they understood the decision to kick the extra point.

That decision eventually set the wheels in motion for a state championship James Wood’s players will always cherish. James Wood was equivalent to a Group AA school prior to 1970, and the Colonels proved they hang with the big boys.

The brand-new Commonwealth District featured five district champions from the 1969 season, and the Colonels beat each of them except Handley. Three of the other Commonwealth schools either won a Group AAA state championship (Lane in 1964) or played for one (Woodbridge in 1974, Gar-Field in 1977) during that era.

“A lot of people didn’t think we could play AAA ball,” said Archie Anderson, a senior and First Team All-State offensive tackle in 1970. “Those big schools get a lot of publicity. They’re good. I’m not taking anything away from them, but they didn’t have the heart that we had.”

James Wood’s head coach, Walter Barr, will attest to that. Barr demanded a lot from his players, and they responded.

“They really loved football and were dedicated to being the best they could be,” said the 84-year-old Barr, who directed the Colonels to a 38-2-1 record from 1967-70, in a recent phone interview. “When they practiced, they practiced hard. When they played, they played hard.

“They were an easy, wonderful group to coach. You never saw them loafing, you never saw them late for practice, you never heard a bad word out of their mouth. They were so excited about playing, and they had great attitudes.”

The 1970 season was indeed uncharted territory for the Colonels. They moved from the Northwestern District to the new Commonwealth District, which meant seven new opponents on their schedule. Handley, Warren County and Woodbridge were the only holdovers.

The nine-team Commonwealth District was chock-full of teams who knew how to win. Valley District champion Albemarle entered the year with a 22-game winning streak. In 1969, Capital District champion Lane went 8-1-1, Battlefield District champion Stafford went 8-1-1, Monument District champion Gar-Field went 7-3 and Northwestern District champion Handley went 8-2. Woodbridge went 6-4 and handed Stafford its only loss. Stonewall Jackson-Manassas went 6-4 and defeated Woodbridge. Only Osbourn (2-8) had a losing record in 1969.

“It was like the whole season was a playoff,” said Jerry Combs, a junior fullback and First Team All-State selection in 1970.

The Colonels went 9-1 during the 1969 season, losing only to Handley by a 32-0 score in the season finale. For 1970, the 45-man roster featured 20 seniors and several returning all-district selections.

Offensively, James Wood churned out most of its yardage on the ground out of the T formation. Only Lane held the Colonels under 20 points, and only Albemarle (299), Handley (253) and William Fleming (271 in the Northwest Region championship game) kept the Colonels under 300 yards.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Combs (1,292 yards, 66 points) led the way on the ground behind an offensive line that featured Anderson (6-2, 200) at right tackle, senior Charlie Troxel at right guard, senior Wayne Bloom at center, Honorable Mention All-State selection and senior Marshall Derry (6-0, 190) at left guard and junior Steve Campbell at left tackle. Anderson, Derry and Combs were all named to the All-Northwest Region teams, All-Commonwealth District and Winchester Star All-Area teams.

The backfield also featured Barton’s sophomore brother Jimmy (66 points scored) and junior Wayne Wert as running backs and senior quarterback Mike Whittle. The ends were senior Paul Campbell (also the team’s kicker, he scored a team-high 81 points) and senior Dale Simpson.

James Wood’s 5-2 defense included junior Paul Cooper (Second Team All-State, all-region, all-district, all-area) and the defensive captain Barton at the linebacker spots. The front included Star all-area picks Gilmer at end and senior nose guard Phil Elliott. The secondary included junior defensive back David Headley (all-district) and Simpson (all-area).

“That team was loaded with talent,” said Combs, who noted that the team featured 16 players who would earn honors from various groups for their play at some point during their careers.

And thanks to Barr and assistant coaches Bill Casto and Mike Jacobs, they believed they were tougher than anyone they lined up against, and more prepared to execute properly.

“[Barr] demanded a lot from you,” Anderson said. “He was a perfectionist. ‘Run it again. Run it again,’ in practice. One little mistake — ‘Run it again.’ He wanted perfection. We were disciplined. I mean disciplined.

“Y’all were going to have to beat us. We weren’t going to beat ourselves. You beat us fair and square, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you have to prove to us that you can beat us. You’re going to have to put in more time than we did, and nobody put in more time than we did.”

The Colonels wasted no time proving they were a Commonwealth contender. James Wood started with a non-district 41-6 win over Warren County, routed Gar-Field 27-8 in the district opener as Combs had 172 yards and two TDs on 21 carries, and ripped Stafford 30-0.

Week 4 would prove to be James Wood’s first major test with a trip to Charlottesville to take on Lane. (Lane was shut down after the 1973-74 school year, and Charlottesville High School opened that fall.)

Led by head coach Tommy Theodose, Lane went 70-8-5 from the start of the 1962 season through Week 3 of the 1970 season, Theodose’s 12th with the Knights. Lane only had one two-game losing streak during that stretch. According to James Wood’s players, a Knights team was that was coming off a 20-6 loss to Woodbridge took steps before the game to try and prevent another one.

Combs said two Lane players came into the James Wood locker room and screamed at them until Barr heard the commotion and got them to leave. Anderson has his own pregame memory.

“When Lane came out of the high school, we were sitting on the steps, waiting to go on the field,” Anderson said. “They looked at us and said, “I thought we was playing the varsity, not the JV.

“I thought that was funny. That did it right there. [We thought[, ‘We’ll show you who the JV team is.’”

James Wood scored a touchdown on its first possession, with Wert capping off a 64-yard, 12-play drive with a six-yard TD run with 6:00 left in the first quarter. Campbell’s extra point made it 7-0.

In terms of total yardage, James Wood dominated, gaining 306 yards to Lane’s 135. Combs, Barton and Wert combined for 238 yards on 43 carries. But the Colonels still found themselves up by just that same 7-0 score halfway through the fourth quarter. Combs said the pre-game talk from Lane got to him.

“I was so mad over the things they said to us, that I didn’t have my game going,” Combs said. “I got 112 yards [on 21 carries], but I found myself looking for them to run into. I was trying to run over every [Lane] jersey I saw.”

With 6:14 left, the Knights finally managed to sustain some offense, with Chip Williams capping a 71-yard drive with a 10-yard TD run with 2:04 left. The Knights went for two and sent Williams off right tackle, but a team effort helped preserve a 7-6 win.

“Two guys hit him and are holding him up at the six-inch line, and then Marshall Derry, he just comes out of nowhere and knocked him straight back,” Combs said. “He crushed him. That was a big moment for that season, those three guys making that play.”

Combs said he was more sore from that game than any the Colonels had played all year. Anderson said Lane was as tough as any team he ever played against.

“After the game, [Theodose] told Barr that was the hardest-hitting football game he’d ever seen,” said Barton, who noted that he was one of three players who combined to knock Lane’s top running back out of the game with simultaneous hits on one play.

James Wood followed with a 48-12 non-district win over John Marshall and a 41-17 district win over Stonewall Jackson to improve to 6-0.

In Week 7, the Colonels were on their way to another comfortable win, as they were up 21-0 with three minutes left against Albemarle. But thanks in large part to future five-year Kansas City Chief tight end Walter White, the game broke badly at the end.

White caught a 15-yard TD pass to make it 21-6, and a two-point conversion made it 21-8. An onside kick recovery at the Wood 45-yard line preceded a 40-yard pass to White, a five-yard rushing TD by Carl Wright, and an extra point kick to make it 21-15. Albemarle then recovered another onside kick at the Wood 49. The Knights made progress, but then the drive went dramatically in reverse, and Albemarle’s threat ended with an incomplete pass on fourth-and-37.

James Wood beat Osbourn 28-8 to improve to 8-0, and then handled Woodbridge 35-12 as Combs rushed for 177 yards to improve to 9-0 overall and 7-0 in the district.

That set the stage for James Wood’s epic home battle with Handley, which came in with an identical 9-0 mark and 7-0 district mark.

Though the Colonels did their best to forget about the previous year’s 32-0 loss to the Judges, Combs couldn’t help but realize that Handley’s opening touchdown and two-point conversion at the 4:21 mark of the first quarter meant that the Judges had scored 40 straight points on the Colonels over the last two seasons. (Tommy Dixon, Handley’s head boys’ basketball coach from 1986-2013 and longtime teacher, caught the two-point pass. Dixon was a Second Team Group AAA All-State pick as a senior end that year.)

“We weren’t going to have a repeat of last year,” Combs said. “[After that touchdown], we cranked it up a notch, I think.”

The two teams went back and forth, with a four-yard TD run by Combs and a Whittle to Campbell conversion tying it at 8 with 2:50 left in the first half. Handley went up 14-8 on a three-yard TD run with two seconds left in the half (the extra point was blocked). James Wood was missing multiple players on the field — the Colonels thought Handley might kick a field goal, and they couldn’t get a timeout called to get the right personnel in the game when the Judges kept their offense on the field.

Whittle connected with Campbell on a 10-yard TD pass with 5:50 left in the third quarter, and Campbell kicked the extra point to make it 15-14. Handley went back up 22-15 on Wim Lyons’ second rushing TD of the game (29 yards) and a Lyons’ two-point run to make it 22-15 Judges with 7:42 left.

The ensuing kickoff went for a touchback, forcing the Colonels to go 80 yards to keep their season alive. James Wood had no doubt it would.

“If you could have crawled in that huddle and looked at the faces on everybody ... it gives me goosebumps,” said Combs, who rushed for more than 170 yards that night. “We knew we were going to score. We went after them and took it to them. I thought [Handley] was physically done when we got to the 50-yard line.”

Combs finished off the drive with a one-yard TD run while taking a massive hit from Honorable Mention All-State linebacker Jimmy Armel. With 2:09 left, the score was 22-21 Handley.

During the drive, Barr sent someone to get Casey from the press box, who came down and assured Barr that a tie would put James Wood in the Northwest Region championship game. Combs said James Wood “thought it could in get easily” on a two-point run after driving 80 yards, but holder Jeff Dodd came in off the sideline and passed the word to have Campbell kick the ball.

“We were trying to throw him out of the huddle,” Combs said.

Campbell’s kick tied the game at 22, but Handley fought back and nearly won the game. The Judges drove all the way to the Wood 20, only to have Gary Gaither’s halfback option pass intercepted by Headley. James Wood’s strong pressure resulted in Gaither being hit as he threw the ball in the final minute. The two teams were Commonwealth co-champions.

A tie wasn’t what either team wanted, but James Wood was glad to eventually receive confirmation from the VHSL that it would play in the Northwest Region title game, which took place on Nov. 21 at Victory Stadium in Roanoke. The Colonels drew William Fleming, which went 8-2 to defend its Western District title. William Fleming defeated previously unbeaten George Washington-Danville in the regular-season finale to take the district.

James Wood led only 3-0 at the half, but the Colonels were never in danger because of a stout performance by its defense. William Fleming did not cross midfield until its one touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, at which point James Wood was already up 25-0.

Barton said the Colonels’ defensive effort was helped by Lane’s Theodose. He passed along game film of William Fleming from that year that he had accumulated from other teams in the Roanoke area. Lane played William Fleming every year from 1964-69.

“Calling the defense, if they got in a Power-I right or a Power-I left, I would call ‘Red Dog’ for the side that they were Power I on, and then I would call ‘Rip’, and that set the defensive end on the opposite side, who all he had to do was come down the line of scrimmage,” Barton said. “Me and Brad Cooper blocked everything up from the [backs who were] trying to block us, because we were coming straight ahead on the Red Dog, and the defensive ends would come down and just wipe [the ballcarrier] out.

“It was the easiest game I ever called on my life on defense.”

Barton noted that William Fleming running back Mike Dowe (1,221 yards, 16 TDs coming into the game, Second Team All-State, future University of Virginia runner) had minus-yardage in the first half. He finished with 39 yards on 13 carries while Combs wracked up 181 yards and a TD on 22 carries.

“[Dowe] did not like to get hit,” Anderson said. “Brad Cooper hit him one time early, and I thought he was never the same after that.”

As Barton’s McDonald’s anecdote showed, James Wood did not know if that win would amount to anything more than a regional title. Undefeated Maury would have won the state title had it won the Eastern Region title game two weeks later on Dec. 4. But Woodrow Wilson defeated Maury 16-6 to give James Wood the state title as the regional champion with the best record.

It was an unusual way to win a state championship, but it’s a year the Colonels will never forget.

“We were a band of brothers, that’s for sure,” Barton said. “It was a great life experience for me.”

Barr couldn’t be prouder of that team.

“They deserved it,” Barr said. “The effort that they put in, not just that year, but the years before it ... each year they got better. There might have been people faster than them, but not many. There might have been people that were stronger than them, but not many.

“There was nobody who wanted to be successful for their school more than them. There was no team with a bigger heart.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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