ELKTON — As soon as he was finished finalizing the schedule for the 2019 season, East Rockingham 10th-year coach Donnie Coleman said he received a call.
When he answered, it was veteran Riverheads coach Robert Casto’s voice he heard.
“He actually called me just to say, ‘Thank you,’” Coleman said. “He appreciated it.”
The Eagles haven’t been afraid to play big-time opponents on their non-district schedule under Coleman and that isn’t changing with the three-time defending Virginia High School League Class 1 state champion Gladiators coming to Elkton tonight for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
It’s a rematch of last year’s 28-0 statement win by East Rockingham — the first over Riverheads in program history — that solidified it’s spot as one of the area’s elite teams.
“It meant a lot to us,” ERHS linebacker Trenton Morris said. “We worked really hard that week and that was probably one of the hardest-hitting games I’ve played in. With the reward of beating them the way we did, it really motivated us more. It was a fun game.”
The Eagles are in their first season in the Bull Run District after nine years in the Shenandoah where it developed a rivalry with the Gladiators that has heated up in recent years due to the postseason success of both programs.
Despite being in different districts now, Coleman said he sat down with ERHS athletic director Eric Phillips during the winter and made sure East Rock still had formidable opponents on the non-district slate.
“They’re going to bring a heck of a crowd,” Coleman said. “We’re going to bring a heck of a crowd. This is what high school football should be all about. I had an opportunity to search all over the state [for teams to play], but I don’t think it’s a good message to your program when you’re traveling two or three hours and there’s a team right there in your backyard willing to play you.”
Both coaches have an old-school mentality and take the one-game-at-a-time approach when talking about their opponents, but the respect between each program was evident.
Riverheads is a team with a lot of unknowns this season with 19 seniors graduating from its title-winning team from a year ago, but the Gladiators know how to reload quickly and have shown that.
“I just think we’re growing,” Casto said. “We had a lot of inexperience on our team. We had some experience, but most of it is growing. Our kids have worked their tails off, they’ve listened. They’re trying to do everything we’ve asked them to do. As a coach, all we can ask them to do is try to grow and get better each week.”
Riverheads opened its season with a 49-15 rout of Washington & Lee and then followed it up with a 38-21 victory over Glenvar — the 2014 Group AA state champions — last week in Greenville.
“Every game is important,” Casto said. “We’ve got to play 10 to get to where we want to. We’re going to see where we are and what we need to do as far as changes, adjustments and just seeing where the kids are. Some of them are really unproven and we’re just trying to see where they are. We played a good Washington & Lee team, a really good Glenvar team and now East Rockingham, who is probably better than all of them.”
The Eagles find themselves in a different situation as they come off a rare Week 2 bye, but it was one that was needed after a physical season-opening loss to Spotswood.
There were several players injured during that game for East Rockingham, but Coleman said they’re all healthy and the team was able to refocus heading into tonight.
“We really needed some rest after that game because it was a tough game,” Morris said. “We’ve just been focused on Riverheads and what we need to do. I think it just brought us together as a team and tightened our bond a little bit.”
When Coleman looked at the Gladiators, he said he doesn’t see many differences from last season.
In fact, he said it’s the same RHS smash-mouth style that has led Casto to 224 victories over a span of 24 seasons and six state championships.
“They replaced a lot of kids, but Robert just does what Robert does, man,” Coleman said.
On the other sideline, Casto said he feels the same way about the Eagles,.
But instead of coming at the Gladiators with a straightforward, basic offense, Casto said East Rock is one of the more complicated offenses he’ll face this season.
“There’s no way you can prepare for all of the things they do,” Casto said. “We’re just going to try to play our assignment, focus on technique and try to slow them down.”
There are a lot of similarities between the two programs with Riverheads winning at least 10 games every year since 2010 and the Eagles having eight-straight playoff appearances.
That’s something that has earned the respect of Casto, he said, and the reason he hopes to continue playing against East Rockingham for the foreseeable future.
“They’ve brought it from nothing to where they are,” Casto said. “Anybody that can stay the course and continue to improve and get better, obviously, they deserve to have the respect of everyone around. … Each year, they’ve gotten better and set the bar higher. That’s why they’re a better football team this year than a lot of people think. Winning breeds winning.”
Morris said Coleman’s attitude toward facing elite competition is contagious.
As players, he said the Eagles have embraced that same approach this season.
“If we’re going to get a banner on the wall, you want to work hard for that,” Morris said. “You want to say that you’ve challenged yourself. I really think Coach [Coleman] set us up good for that.”
Coleman said he’s told his players that if they hope to be playing meaningful games in October and playoff games in November, it’s contests like tonight’s that make the difference.
“They are two of the better teams in this area, two of the better teams consistently,” Coleman said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. I mean, my gosh, they’re three-time state champions. We’re looking forward to it.”
It’s possible East Rockingham is sitting at 0-2 to start the season tonight or they could get a win and get back to .500.
But either way, Morris said it’s a big-time game tonight in Elkton.
No matter what happens, however, Coleman said he’ll continue to make calls to Casto moving forward in an attempt to continue the rivalry.
Because in the end, he said, it makes both teams better.
And Casto appreciated that.
“If you’re a competitor at heart, you want to play in games like this,” Coleman said. “I have no problem playing with them. If we can step on the field with them and go toe to toe, we can do it with anybody in this area.”