WHEELING - What started out innocent enough has really turned into something rather cool.
"There's a lot of tradition here at Madonna," said second-year football coach Doug Taylor. "I can remember back in my high school days (at Oak Glen) playing Madonna with the silver helmets and the Dons logo on the side.
"We were talking about it one evening and we thought it would be a nice idea to go back to the silver helmets in recognition of that 1987 team.
SACKED — Madonna’s Tyler Ewusiak tackles Tucker County quarterback Derek Nestor while Blue Dons teammate Travis Brown looks on during the 20-14 victory in double overtime last week. Madonna will meet Wahama at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wheeling Island Stadium for the West Virginia Class A state championship.
-- Fred Younce
"We brought it up to the kids. We looked at multiple shades of that silver to try to fit what we were doing. The kids selected one and we went with it."
Twenty-five years after that 1987 team won the first state football championship for the Blue Dons, Madonna is back in the title game.
Thanks to a 20-14 double-overtime victory last week at Tucker County, the No. 4 Blue Dons will take on No. 3 Wahama at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wheeling Island Stadium for the West Virginia Class A state championship.
"We gave the kids the option," said Taylor. "It wasn't a mandatory thing from us. We asked them if they wanted to try this and they were pretty receptive to it. And, here we are."
But, it wasn't just because of the grey helmets to commemorate that 1987 squad.
"We got a late start last year," Taylor said of his late hire, in June, to replace long-time head coach Bob Kramer. "We started in June, put together a staff and tried to get to know the kids. Once we finished up the season, I really saw that the kids had a lot of heart and weren't afraid to work hard.
"It takes time and we knew it was going to take time. We were giving them different things that they weren't really familiar with and it was a little bit away from their culture of lining up and playing smash-mouth football. I knew we had the athletes after Week 2 or 3. We had some young kids who we had to get to buy into the program and sell out to it, to commit their time and effort to it. I thought we could have done a lot better (last year) if we hadn't been beaten up late in the year (with injuries)."
So, over the summer, things changed.
"We're sharing kids with other sports and that's an issue, like at all schools," said Taylor. "In the offseason, we almost went to a mandatory lift with the kids. We had a really good turnout for that. We hired an outside company to handle our speed, agility and quickness training and the kids pretty much were 100 percent into that and it paid dividends for us.
"Once we got into two-a-days, we knew we had something special. We got nicked up a little in the scrimmage and we pulled out of our second scrimmage to try to stay healthy for our first game."
Two regular season games really have defined Madonna's season to this point.
"When we got beat by Wheeling Central (28-22 in Week 2), we knew right then we could play with those teams," said Taylor. "When we got back into the locker room, it was business-like. The kids didn't like losing, but they knew they could play with and beat Wheeling Central, and other teams like them. The kids knew they were capable of playing better than that night. They just devoted themselves to the program and worked harder."
The other game was the 21-20 come-from-behind victory at Steubenville Catholic Central in Week 9.
"Things have really turned around since that game," said Taylor. "It's been a whole different team, a whole different demeanor in practice. Right now, they know they are good enough to win the state title."
Along with changes to the program, came changes in the coaching staff from Year 1 to Year 2. Brad Kessel was brought in to be the defensive coordinator.
"Brad's a great guy," said Taylor. "The kids like him. He's from the old school. He's a hard-nosed coach. The kids appreciate that. His style is a little bit different than what they were accustomed to. We're a little more of a zone team, when they were a man team before. They bought into it. We struggled a little bit early in the year, but as the year went on, they have been getting better and better at it and I think right now we are playing out best defense.
"When we came in, we brought our own staff in and we've had some changes to that staff. I think our staff has come together really well. We get along well and the kids know we get along well.
"The staff has been great. I can't say enough about the staff from John McClelland, Brad Kessel, Jon Kendrick, Ray Pernell, Eric Nejus and John Lesho. They've all been great."
And, with a close-knit staff, comes a close-knit team.
"We joke around with them and the kids joke around with us, but when we go to the practice field, they know it's time to practice," said Taylor. "When it's over, it's time to laugh and have fun.
"When you go down to practice, it's time to practice. It's a discipline thing. You want each player to do exactly what you want them to do and not to try to do their own thing. There's some screaming and yelling at practice, but, I think it's important that when practice is over, to show them it's not personal. We turn it off.
"Once practice is over, it's back to being you and me and hanging out together. Our door is always open. The kids come in and sit.
"After the game at Tucker County, we all went to eat and the kids told the hostess it was my birthday and they all came over and sang happy birthday to me. It wasn't my birthday, so the kids got a laugh out of that.
"It's about having fun. They are a great group of kids."