West-Oak trainer leads local push to help flood-stricken schools
By Eric Sprott
WESTMINSTER — As he lined the field Friday morning, there was a little more water on Warrior Field than West-Oak High School football coach Josh Pierce would have liked.
But damp field or not, his Warriors will hold their first dress rehearsal for the upcoming season tonight when they host five teams — including Seneca and Walhalla — in jamboree action, with three two-quarter games on the docket.
And while a little extra water might be a minor inconvenience for West-Oak, a little perspective courtesy of one of the team’s most instrumental support staff members paints a picture of how fortunate the Warriors truly are with their ability to take care of more than just themselves.
Roughly 400 miles to the north in central West Virginia, communities are still picking up the pieces following the devastating effects of historic rainfall, flash flooding and overflowing riverbanks earlier this summer.
Torrential rains on June 23 — as much as 10 inches of rain fell in a period of 12 hours in some spots — were catastrophic, as numerous homes, businesses and schools were lost, and 23 people were killed in the historic floods that saw the Elk River rise to a record of more than 33 feet.
Kari Williams, a West Virginia native who serves as the certified athletic trainer at West-Oak, was swimming in the river just days before while vacationing at her grandmother’s house in Webster Springs. She heard about the disaster from a fellow trainer at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s national convention in Baltimore, and her heart sunk when she heard the news.
“The flooding washed out the entire other side of the riverbank from my grandma’s house, but luckily she wasn’t affected,” said Williams, who found her way to West-Oak through PlaySafe, a nonprofit organization that provides certified trainers to schools throughout the Upstate. “Most of my family was safe, but I knew a lot of people who were affected, and I knew the area that was affected.
“I was watching videos on Facebook, and saying, ‘I know that store,’ and, ‘I go to that store a lot.’ It’s where I spent most of my childhood in the summers when I could, so it was strange.”
A number of schools were hit hard by the floods, including Richwood, Clay County and Herbert Hoover high schools, which struck a particular chord with Williams, whose father coached four sports — including football — and served as an athletic director and athletic trainer while she was growing up.
Growing up in that environment, Williams said she was taping ankles by the time she was 6 years old.
“Not that I did it well back then, but that was my way of staying busy while dad was at practice,” she said.
Her brother followed in their father’s footsteps, as he’s now the head coach for football and baseball — in addition to his duties as an athletic director and assistant principal — for a West Virginia high school. During a 7-on-7 competition after the flooding, he took donations at the gate to help the flood-stricken schools’ football programs, whose seasons were in danger due to the extensive damage left behind in the wake of the flooding.
It was a cause also championed by Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher and Alabama coach Nick Saban, a pair of Mountain State natives who have spearheaded equipment donations to the affected schools.
That gesture by her brother — and two of the top coaches in college football — struck Williams, who took it upon herself to help the cause as well.
“That clicked in my mind, because I hadn’t thought about the football teams,” Williams said. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we help?’
“Anything that was touched by the water that wasn’t concrete had to be destroyed, so they lost everything. I asked coach Pierce if we had anything we might be able to donate, and I reached out to the other PlaySafe athletic trainers, and everyone has been really generous.”
In addition to West-Oak, rival Walhalla also pitched in to help the cause, as did PlaySafe and Clemson Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, Williams said.
Pierce and the West-Oak program were generous in their giving, as they shipped medical supplies, shoulder pads, cloth, girdles and various other pads to the three aforementioned schools, who Williams said were all able to start practice Monday thanks in part to the Warriors’ generosity.
And while football may be only a game in the eyes of many, Pierce said it’s much more than that, particularly in small, tight-knit communities like those in the flood-stricken areas of West Virginia.
“This time of year is when everybody’s school year and normalcy gets kicked off, and I say that with the pun intended,” he said. “Football starts the school year, and with all that damage, it wasn’t something I really thought about until Kari approached us about it. I was all for it, because those kids need some sort of normalcy in their lives.
“I was glad to donate whatever we could and whatever we could afford to donate to get those guys started.”
“I’ve seen through my 30 years a lot of kids where my dad or brother pulled in someone who was failing or really struggling at home,” Williams added. “Football gives them that reason to keep pushing through, a reason to keep their grades up or just a place to go feel wanted and needed. I think athletics are a crucial part of any community, and you listen to some of these kids affected by the flood, and they’ll tell you that they’ve got their house back, but they didn’t know what they were going to do when they were saying there wasn’t going to be a football season.
“Being able to play football and get the community back together gives people something to rally around.”
As practice presses on in West Virginia, tonight’s jamboree at West-Oak will get underway at 6 p.m. when Walhalla faces Southside. Seneca will play Riverside at 7 p.m., while the nightcap will feature West-Oak and Carolina at 8 p.m. Gates open at 4:30 p.m., and the cost of admission is $6.
And while the sideline occupied by the Oconee County schools tonight may be a little wetter than most would prefer, the West-Oak program can remember things could be a lot worse, and also take some pride in what it did to help support its football brethren to the north.
“I didn’t expect us or Walhalla to really be able to give a whole lot, because we struggle with our own budget anyway,” Williams said. “The fact that our tiny schools were able to give so much is just fantastic.”
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