HEDGESVILLE - Nearly two years ago to the date, the Brooke Bruins played Musselman on the road in a game in which they were trying to cap a 10-0 regular season. Brooke head coach Tom Bruney was tossed just before halftime and Rich Thomaselli, then an assistant with the Bruins, took over the second half and led his team to a come-from-behind victory.
So impressed with what they saw that night, when Hedgesville administrators went looking for a new football coach, they selected Thomaselli to lead their guys, and he took Wes Eddy, a defensive coach at Brooke at the time, with him. Both are Brooke graduates, with Thomaselli a member of the school's athletic Hall of Fame.
''It's kinda weird, it's like playing Brooke in a different uniform,'' Wheeling Park coach Chris Daugherty said.
A few months later, both Wheeling Park and Hedgesville, landlocked schools in different W.Va. panhandles who weren't overly interested in playing a lot of out-of-state teams, had an open date and hammered out a contract to play each other. The first game is Friday night in Hedgesville. The Eagles will play at Wheeling Island Stadium next season.
It's something that Thomaselli, in particular, really wanted because he talks a lot about ''valley football'' to his players, but he wants them to see it in person.
''Once we get this program pointed in right direction and become competitive, we'd like to play a couple of (Northern Panhandle) teams so our kids get the feel of valley football,'' Thomaselli said.
What does he mean by that?
''Toughness,'' he said. ''Fight to the end. It's good football back home. Hopefully we can bring it here.''
The state's Eastern Panhandle is exploding in population. Already three Class AAA high schools in the Berkeley County - Musselman and Class AAA No. 1 Martinsburg - another is on the way, and it's hurting some teams in the area.
Hedgesville has an enrollment of 1,700, but less than 47 were out for football at the beginning of the season. It's down to 25, roughly, at the moment. Some transferred to Martinsburg to play for a team that is fresh off a championship. Some just flat-out quit. Others are injured.
Thomaselli and Eddy have tried to change the culture at Hedgesville, where the football history isn't necessarily strong.
''You've got to start somewhere,'' Thomaselli said. ''They have to understand who is running the show. It's not them. Last year, we had a lot of seniors. It was hard to change their mentality. We gave games away. We were in games all year. We had a 23-play drive against Martinsburg. Nobody did that. We showed a lot of potential, just never got it done. I don't know if it was because they haven't won in a while.''
Thomaselli has some big classes on the way. As long as the new school doesn't swallow them up, he expects a bright future for Hedgesville.
Friday night, he said, is a good place to start.
''This is like our playoff game,'' he said. ''That's how we're approaching it.''
For a Brooke guy, Thomaselli was effusive in his praise of the Patriots.
He loves the basketball players at receiver. The quarterback who transferred in who is a ''winner.'' The talented younger players.
''It's fun to watch them,'' he said. ''Hopefully, we won't have to watch them flying down the field too much Friday night.
''I can't wait till they get down here and see what happens.''
Wheeling Park is a team that has shown weekly improvement and is playing its best football. But it's still not at the point of naming a score, Daugherty said.
''I told our kids, 'they didn't play any slouches. We're not getting off the bus and scaring Hedgesville. They've played some people. They're not worried about playing Wheeling Park. We've got to be ready for anything.' '' he said.