All things, whether good or bad, must come to an end. And, truth be told in this case, money couldn’t pay for this rivalry to continue.
After years of speculation and even discussion, one of the longest-running — yet quite lopsided — high school sports rivalries in all of Ohio is ending. That’s because, following week one of the 2019 season, Jackson and Wellston will no longer be playing each other in varsity football.
The latest, and final, four-year contract between the two programs expires after that — and there are no plans presently to renew the series once it concludes. This season’s meeting will be the 105th in the long-running rivalry, as Jackson owns a lopsided (72-26-6) advantage in the all-time series, including winning 26 of the past 27 meetings.
Wellston’s win in 2010 snapped its infamous 19-game losing streak against the Ironmen, of which the program is traditionally two divisions larger than the Golden Rockets.
According to Wellston City Schools Superintendent Karen Boch, that is one of the reasons why Wellston reached out to Jackson to stop the series — which has long been played as the season opener, but also was the regular-season finale for some time including on Thanksgiving Day. While Wellston High School Athletic Director Jeff Hendershott has long spoken publicly in support of the game, Boch said it was a consensus decision. Boch responded to an e-mail request by The Jackson County Times-Journal late last week for comment.
“Let me say that this decision has been contemplated for several years and therefore has not been taken lightly. This decision was not made solely by the board, but made after receiving input from coaches, students and administrators,” she wrote. “The decision was based on what’s best for our students, staff and community. We are extremely proud of our student-athletes and are choosing not to put them in a challenging situation that is difficult to be successful through no fault of their own. We are outranked not only by division, but by size and numbers. We risk suffering season-ending injuries in the first game and the season is opened with a loss, which is supported by the series record.”
And, in most instances, the scores have been lopsided. In the past 13 meetings, of Wellston’s losses, the closest the Golden Rockets got was a 21-7 decision in 2009 and a 14-0 shutout in 2005. Before that, from 2000 thru 2003, the Ironmen captured close contests of 28-20, 44-33, 28-26 and finally 27-21.
The two teams did not play in 1991, when Wellston was on a pay-to-participate season following the failure of an operating levy.
The six ties were 11-11 in 1908, 6-6 in 1926, 8-8 in 1973, and scoreless draws in 1938, 1944 and 1950. With the institution of overtime, those six ties should stand forever for the final series tally. The Golden Rockets, under head coach Bill Fyffe in the late 1980s, won three of four meetings against Jackson — including Wellston’s last win AT Jackson in 1989.
Rumors had swirled in the 2015 offseason that the series — which is easily arguably the single-largest one-day moneymaking event in Jackson County — would cease. However, the superintendents of both districts — Boch and Jackson’s Phil Howard— reached out to re-up on the game.
For both schools, and as Hendershott has said publicly, neither could afford to give the game up. When played at Wellston every other season, the Golden Rockets’ gate receipts easily exceed $15,000. The gate from the Ironmen matchup generally generates more revenue than the other four home bouts combined. The same applies when played at Jackson —and before the formation of the Frontier Athletic Conference — the Ironmen needed the game while they searched for a new athletic league and to keep contests on their schedule.
Jackson High School Athletic Director Pat Stevens met with local media members on Monday — and offered his take on the matter. “My biggest fear is that the game may never come back. Once you go away from something, it’s just easier to stay away. I understand wanting to take a break for a little bit, but when we play for over 100 years and all of the sudden it’s gone…we have so many people in this community and so many people in the Wellston community that grew up in this rivalry. It’s unfortunate that some kids aren’t going to get to experience that,” said Stevens. “I know it’s tough to be on that end of it (series record), but there are other factors that go into it. We would still love to continue the series if they were to have a change of heart. We didn’t want this game to go away in way, shape or form. But we have to be ready to move on.”
Stevens said “it’s going to be a huge loss for us financially” — as it also will with Wellston. “I can find a week-one game. I’m confident of that. But can I find a week-one game that even comes close to what Wellston was doing for us financially? I doubt it,” he said. “If you take into account everything, it’s almost $20,000.”
Stevens said Hendershott e-mailed him and wanted to meet in person about the series conclusion, as that meeting indeed took place. “I have a ton of respect for Jeff Hendershott. He does a great job at what he does and is one of the really nice guys that is easy to work with in this business,” said Stevens. “We met, and Jeff informed me that they (Wellston) were not going to continue with the series. I kinda knew what was coming when he told me he wanted to meet with me face-to-face. But I respect the fact that Jeff wanted to tell me face-to-face instead of sending an e-mail or a text message or even make a phone call.”
Boch wrote that “other factors considered include the tension it creates between the two communities. Furthermore, this decision has no impact on Jackson’s state rankings.” “We would like to continue to play Jackson in other sports if at all possible and we hope they continue to be successful in football. Ending a longtime tradition is difficult, but it’s time. The bottom line is that our students matter and we need to provide them with every opportunity to be the best they can be and provide them with opportunities that allow them to grow in all aspects,” she said.
As for seeing 2020 and beyond, Oak Hill has long been the Rockets’ target for a week-one matchup — given both the geography and same Division V size. A week-one with the Oaks, and being played on either Friday or Saturday night opposite Jackson, is Wellston’s best course of action as far as replacing the lost revenue from the Jackson game. The first two meetings towards that goal are already set, with Wellston and Oak Hill renewing their “Civil War” for week four of 2021 and 2022.
Barring any conference realignment with the Tri-Valley Conference (Wellston) and/or Southern Ohio Conference (Oak Hill) in the future, the Golden Rockets and Oaks have agreed in principle to renew their varsity series. Wellston will host Oak Hill in 2021, followed by Oak Hill hosting Wellston the next year. Currently, the two squads meet in the Ohio High School Athletic Association Jamboree preseason game. Prior to previous SOC realignment, the two clubs faced off in week four from 2010 thru 2014 — with Oak Hill winning four of five. They had also met in mid-September until after the 2006 campaign.
When asked about possible replacements for Wellston, Stevens said he has sent “feelers” for preferably two-year contracts — and ideally which are either Athens or Gallia Academy. Gallia Academy was the longtime week-10 tilt when Jackson and the Blue Devils were both members of the Southeastern Ohio Athletic League — before the Blue Devils departed for the Ohio Valley Conference. Gallia Academy is off the week-three slate following this season, as Logan replaces it in that slot.
While interest grows towards those games over the next two seasons, Stevens expects interest “will be high” for the final two meetings between Jackson and Wellston. And, while some will say it aint so, still others agree it’s time for the rivalry to end.
“These last two games, we need to make it about the kids instead of the adults,” said Stevens. “Let the kids enjoy these last two games and hopefully, we’ll have great sportsmanship and a great following at both games.”
*This article was shared to iHeart Media Sports by Paul Boggs of The Jackson County Times-Journal*