In the latest episode of the Aiken Standard's weekly football preview show we discuss this week's slate of games.
The Wagener-Salley football coaching staff knows all about the frustrations and the painful defeats in the War Eagles' history.
The coaches know about heart-breaking losses like the ones that came in Class A Lower State title games, one in 1986 by a point to Timmonsville, another in 1978 by two in double overtime to Williston-Elko.
They know about all of those years when Wagener-Salley carried a losing record. And they know about how the War Eagles have often seen their breakthroughs followed immediately by season-enders.
But they're not putting the pressure of the past on their players, who are right in the middle of another yearly attempt to push the program to new heights.
"This team is carrying around a little extra weight, if you will," assistant coach Reggie Corley said. "The community is rooting for us. The community is in our corner now. We have support like we never had before."
Corley would know. So, too, would fellow assistant Willie Stroman. Those two know winning better than just about anyone who's ever played at Wagener-Salley, as they were part of some of the mid-90s War Eagles teams that are among the best in school history. To fourth-year head coach Willie Fox, they're "invaluable".
"A lot of times, we're making our own history at Wagener-Salley. Honestly, there is not a lot of Wagener-Salley football history as far as winning," said Fox, who took over a program that lost nine straight games to end the 2014 season.
"There's three region championships in the history of the school. But to have two guys on staff that have been part of a winning football team at Wagener-Salley is special, because they can always talk to the kids about what it was like when we won here."
Both were on the field in 1993, Corley a senior and Stroman a sophomore, when the War Eagles shut out Williston-Elko. And both were on the sidelines in Williston two weeks ago when the War Eagles ended a 24-game losing streak in the series.
"It was just a privilege to be on this team that, two weeks ago, went to Williston and beat them and knowing that the last time we won on that field both him and I were playing together, so that was an amazing feeling," Stroman said.
Stroman, the team's quarterback and part of the young "Fab Four" that included future NFL receiver Desmond Kitchings, Eric Hall and Woody Evans, didn't just expect the War Eagles to win that night in 1993 – he and Corley both expected them to win by more than the 19-point margin.
"We had a swag then that we're getting back now," said Corley, an all-area defensive back who has a fond memory of scoring two touchdowns in a win over Pelion. "We are now expecting to win these games. We never went into a game that we thought we weren't gonna win."
The 1994 team ended a couple of streaks by beating Blackville-Hilda and winning a region championship – thanks to some help from the Hawks, who later beat Williston-Elko – for the first time since 1986.
The following year, the War Eagles spent several weeks in the No. 1 spot in the Class A rankings before a rough closing stretch. Still, they finished with an 8-4 record and the program's fourth consecutive winning season. They've had four total since then.
Two of them have been in a row, though, and at 5-1 this season the War Eagles are well on their way to a third straight. That's part of a culture change at Wagener-Salley that Stroman, a second-year assistant, said was the focal point when Fox took over the program.
"And that's what you're seeing now on Friday nights," he said. "You know, it's basically getting to the point that the town is shutting down to come to Friday night lights."
"You can't change the culture by yourself," Fox added. "I think the best thing I've done since I've been here is hire good people around me. I want to hire good men, and I think we've done that. We've got a really good staff of good, Christian men that love our kids and really want to be here. These two are a huge part of that."
Corley was Fox's first hire, at the urging of Robbie Randall, who both coached and coached with Fox at Pelion. At that time, he was a few years removed from a 13-year run at Wagener-Salley where he guided Corley, Stroman and many more.
"When I was hired here, I called Robbie and I said 'Tell me who here that I need to talk to,'" Fox said. "The first name was Reggie Corley. 'You need to talk to Reggie Corley.' We all had that common acquaintance. And Robbie's the best guy in the world. It was cool that all three of us had that in common."
Now, the Wagener-Salley pregame routine on Friday typically consists of a gathering in the auditorium as soon as the students get out of school. There, Corley and Stroman give them pep talks and, yes, the glory days of the mid-90s do come up in conversation.
"One thing I like about this guy, Coach Fox, is that he is open to talk to me and Coach Stroman about what can he do to kind of bridge the gap between what it was when we were here and what it is now," Corley said. "Because one thing that hasn't changed, Wagener-Salley has always had talent; a lot of talent. But we're finally getting a coach now that knows how to put the pieces and put the guys where they need to be to be successful."
Corley and Stroman weren't deterred by Wagener's small size then, and they're not now. Stroman used Kitchings, now an assistant coach at North Carolina State, as an example of how a small town doesn't mean small potential – and how a lack of a lot of history doesn't mean they can't make a lot of their own.
"Spring games, we may take a few younger kids up there (to N.C. State)," Stroman said. "And we always share with him that he's from here. 'He stayed here. 'He went to school in the same halls that y'all walk.'"
"When I was growing up ... our parents, my grandfather and grandmother, they never let me believe that Wagener was any different than any other town," Corley said. "We weren't different from Pelion, we weren't different from Aiken. It didn't matter. With that being said, I was proud of living in Wagener, playing football in Wagener, basketball in Wagener. So when we did win, I expected to win."