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Opinion: There’s never been a better time for Scott and Oneida to play

Thirty-nine years ago, Scott High and Oneida met on the football field for the final time. In the nearly four decades that have followed, there has been some occasional clamoring for the two teams to resume their old rivalry, but it hasn’t happened and has never been seriously considered — even though the schools have met in every other sport since that time.

It’s never happened, but that doesn’t have to mean it never can happen. There’s never been a better time — or a better reason — for the two teams to square off than this Friday night.

For 39 years, there have always been plenty of other options to fill 10-game schedules … always another team to play, even if it meant driving two or three hours on occasion for a non-region game. But this Friday could be different. Both Scott and Oneida are suddenly open this week, after their opponents canceled because of Covid-19. 

The Highlanders were scheduled to host Austin-East, but found out Saturday that the Roadrunners are being forced to cancel. The Indians were scheduled to host Oliver Springs but found out Tuesday that the Bobcats are canceling. 

By rule, either team can pick up a win if they don’t play this week. The wins will be reflected in the historical win-loss records, but won’t account for much more than that, since both games were non-region games.

But make no mistake: Players from both teams care more about playing a game — under the lights and in front of their family and friends — than about a mythical win on their final regular season record. 

This isn’t to suggest that Oneida cannot find a replacement opponent on Friday. With game cancelations mounting due to the spread of covid, there are other teams not playing and looking for games on Friday. But Scott’s game against A-E was canceled more than 72 hours ago, and the Highlanders are still looking. 

And, for Oneida, it’s not as simple as finding an opponent that wants to play. It’s about finding an opponent that’s willing to come to Oneida. The Indians only had four home games on the schedule this season. That becomes three with Oliver Springs’ cancelation. OHS isn’t likely to be too receptive to traveling for a game this week — not so much because the Indians want to play in front of their home fans as because they need the money that is generated from gate and concession receipts at a home game. Besides that, it’s homecoming week at Oneida. The festivities have already begun, the dresses have been rented or purchased, and the annual homecoming parade is slated for Friday morning.

Scott High, I’m told, would be open to playing a game at Jim May Stadium, with stipulations, even though it would mean forfeiting their own home game that was scheduled for this week.

That’s not a big loss. Even if the two schools split the net gate receipts, 50/50, Oneida would likely pull in more money from this hypothetical matchup than any of its other three home games this season, simply because an Oneida-Scott game is always going to be the biggest gate of the season, by far.

There has been growing pressure for the Scott-Oneida series to be renewed. The current players from both schools overwhelmingly want it. Former players from both schools overwhelmingly want it. And many parents from both schools want it. 

Despite that, the series has never appeared to take a step towards renewal. Tony Lambert was adamant that he would never schedule a game between the two schools, not for any amount of money, and that included during his stint as Scott High’s head coach in 2011. Lambert left Oneida earlier this year and is currently co-defensive coordinator at University of the Cumberlands.

But while a game between the two schools hasn’t been placed on the schedule as a home-and-home series any time teams have gone through the two-year rescheduling process, covid has presented the perfect opportunity to schedule a game at the last minute. If Scott High and Oneida square off this week, it means the players get to play, whereas they otherwise might not. And it could be used as a test run to see if these two schools can indeed renew their old rivalry.

Why they stopped playing

Back in the days when Scott County had four high schools, Oneida and Huntsville played football every single year. When Scott High opened in 1971 and the other high schools were closed, Oneida and Scott played every year until 1982. The Indians won the first two games, in 1971 and 1972. The teams split games over the next four years, before the Highlanders won the last six games in the series.

So why did they stop playing? Time has a way of coloring things. Ask a lot of people, and they’ll tell you, “Too many fights.” But when it comes to specifics, most people have trouble recalling many actual fights. 

Rather, the Scott-Oneida series stopped because of a scheduling conflict in 1983. Coach Jim May and Coach Jack Diggs, the coaches of the respective schools at the time, couldn’t agree on a week to play the game. So, they simply didn’t play it. And they never played again.

As years passed, there was interest in rescheduling the series, but resentment persisted over what had happened in 1983, and the game was never placed on the schedule again.

It can work

Can Oneida and Scott High actually play and be civil about it? We think so. The two schools already meet twice a year in girls soccer, and twice more in boys soccer. They face each other off and on in softball, and were regular opponents in baseball until a disagreement three years ago. They’ve played several times in recent years in boys basketball, including a pair of games just two years ago.

Back in the mid 2000s, McCreary Central pulled a sly trick to boost ticket sales during its Christmas tournament, scheduling Scott and Oneida against each other after it was too late for the Indians to back out. It marked the first time the two teams had played in boys basketball since Bill Hall — currently Scott County’s director of schools — was coaching at Oneida nearly two decades earlier. And that game was by far the best-attended game of the entire tournament.

Several years later, Anderson County scheduled the two teams to play in its own Christmas tournament. Again, it was a well-attended game.

There was only one fight at either of those games, and it was between two parents from the same school, with nothing to do with the game on the court. 

Fortunately, Scott and Oneida got together and decided to stop letting other schools capitalize on fans’ desire to see the two teams play. Through a cooperative effort between Coach Jordan Jeffers at Scott High and Coach Jacob King at Oneida, they played a pair of games during summer camp. The following season, they played at Scott High’s Thanksgiving tournament, then again at Oneida’s Christmas tournament (and who can forget that South Fork Physical Therapy Christmas Classic game at Oneida in December 2019, which saw a packed house and a fantastic atmosphere for high school basketball?).

The truth is, most of the players from these two schools are friends who get along well and hang out together off the field. Nearly half of Oneida’s seniors started their high school football careers at Scott High. They don’t resent Scott High, though they’d love to play their old school. If there’s any resentment between these two schools, it generally exists among parents who graduated many years ago, not the players. It would be a bitterly contested game, of course; Scott High would love nothing better than to beat Oneida, and Oneida would love to beat Scott High. But Scott High’s basketball region semifinal game against Kingston last year was pretty bitterly contested in its own right, as is any Oneida-Coalfield football game. Tensely contested games are a part of sports. That makes the sports better, not worse.

What would it mean?

Contrary to what some people think, high school football programs aren’t raking in money hand-over-fist. Running a sports program costs money. And putting on games costs money. Besides all of the standard costs involved — equipment, light bills, field upkeep, etc. — the costs associated with hosting a game top $1,000 on a typical Friday night, once the officiating team has been paid and the other expenses have been accounted for. 

Much of that money is generated through gate and concession receipts. Without it, the players and their parents would have to work harder to raise money, or businesses would have to be asked to contribute more, or the sports programs would cease to exist. 

The average high school football game probably has fewer than 1,000 fans in attendance. It’s not hard to imagine that a Scott-Oneida game would have three or four thousand fans in attendance. The math isn’t difficult. It would be a nice little financial boost for the two schools. 

Splitting the gate 50/50 seems like it would be a solid compromise for this year. Both schools would otherwise lose a home game, so both schools can retain an equal share of the proceeds. Oneida gets to keep its homecoming, if it chooses. And maybe in 2023, if the game were to go well, the series could be renewed on a permanent basis with the rivalry swapping host schools each year.

As for who wins and who loses, that doesn’t much matter. There’s bragging rights for the players, of course. There will be trash talk among the students, of course. That’s what teenagers do. But in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t really matter. Oneida might win by five touchdowns. Or Scott High might win by five touchdowns. More likely, it would be a closely-contested game. Even if it weren’t, the losing team could take solace in the knowledge that the pendulum is always swinging with such things, and there’s always a chance for payback somewhere down the road.

Let’s just play football.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor and publisher. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett, or email him at bgarrett at ihoneida dot com.
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