Flashback Friday: Looking at 'The asterisk game'
By Chapin Jewell
If you’re a numbers person and also happen to have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder, there’s something about the numbers of the Keyser versus Frankfort football series that’s a bit bothersome. In fact, as a sportswriter, every time you write an article or simply have a discussion about the all-time record in the series, you have to explain what might best be described as the “asterisk game.”
What is this guy talking about you may be wondering? Here’s the deal. Frankfort and Keyser have played every year in the Mineral Bowl since 1976, for a total of 44 Mineral Bowl matchups. Keyser leads the Mineral Bowl series with a record of 29-15. But 29-15 is not the all-time record in the series overall because the two actually met twice in 1997, with the second matchup, exactly one week after the Mineral Bowl, being a playoff game.
Keyser, after dropping the Mineral Bowl to Frankfort by a score of 25-0 in 1997’s last regular season game, did a total turnaround one week later and upset the Falcons in first round playoff action by a score of 7-3.
This forever will remain the “asterisk game,” not to in any way diminish the accomplishment, quite the contrary. It’s just the “asterisk game” because it’s the reason you have to clarify every year come Mineral Bowl time that Keyser leads the Mineral Bowl series 29-15, but actually overall, the Golden Tornado hold a 30-15 advantage all time…because of, the “asterisk game.”
While we’re somewhat poking fun at how this outlier game messes with the cleanliness of the numbers, the reality is that the memories produced by 1997’s turn of events, best described as a reversal of fortune, ranks near the top in Keyser/Frankfort football lore.
Cumberland’s Fort Hill and Allegany High School’s, prior to the state playoff system beginning in Maryland in 1974, always played their “Turkey Day” game on Thanksgiving. Once the playoff system began, however, the game was moved to the final week of the regular season, which until last year was in week 10, now it’s been moved to week 9 as Maryland has gone to a nine-game regular season. The point is, the two always end the regular season playing each other.
Keyser and Frankfort’s Mineral Bowl rivalry, however, has bounced around. The first five were played during the final week of the regular season, the next four years the Mineral Bowl was moved to week one of the regular season, the next couple were moved to week two, then the game was switched back to week one. The rivalry game has bounced around and is still bouncing around.
In 1997, the Mineral Bowl was indeed the final week of the regular season. Both teams entered the week 10 regular season finale in good position in terms of making the playoffs, with Frankfort ranked number seven in class AA and Keyser ranked 11th.The biggest issue was the fact that a win for either Frankfort or Keyser in the game would garner a much coveted home playoff game the following week.
For Frankfort, the Falcons entered the 1997 season having qualified for the playoffs in eight of the last nine years. In fact, 1997 would mark the fifth straight year the Falcons had qualified for the state playoffs.
For Keyser, the Golden Tornado had qualified for the playoffs the year prior in 1996 for the first time since winning their last football state championship in 1969. Kelly Day took over the program in 1995 and went 1-9 in his first season. The next year, Day led Keyser to a 9-4 overall record and state semi-final appearance. With Day’s tragic passing in the offseason, Tom Preaskorn now looked to lead Keyser back to the playoffs for the second straight year after the long absence.
With a high flying offense led by eventual Virginia Tech quarterback Grant Noel and Shepherd running back Travis Lynch leading the way, the Falcons entered the regular season Mineral Bowl matchup with an impressive 8-1 record. Frankfort had defeated Jefferson, Moorefield, St. Vincent Pallotti, Hampshire, Beall, Allegheny Academy, Berkeley Springs and Bishop Walsh. The Falcons’ lone loss of the season was a 21-18 defeat at home to Allegany.
Led by senior quarterback Jeremy Swick and running backs Lajavious Fagan, Rodney Twyman and Aaron Dupont on offense, Keyser entered the regular season Mineral Bowl matchup with a similarly impressive 7-2 record. Keyser had defeated Tucker County, Southern, Bishop Walsh, Berkeley Springs, Hampshire, Musselman and Westmar. Keyser’s only losses came to Beall in overtime (14-13) and Allegany (13-0), both at home.
Frankfort would end up dominating the regular season finale, defeating Keyser 25-0 in a muddy, rainy contest. Travis Lynch rushed for 177 yards and three touchdowns, and Brian Ely had 10 tackles in leading the Falcons to the shutout victory.
In the contest, Ely also added 51 yards on the ground, Lee Carpenter had five tackles, a fumble recovery and two sacks, Matt Miller intercepted a pass, and Sam Albin had seven tackles, all for the victorious Falcons.
In the November 8, 1997 write-up in the Mineral News-Tribune, the head coaches were quoted as follows:
“I’m tickled with our performance,” said Frankfort coach Greg Phillips. “We played well on both sides of the ball and got an outstanding effort from everyone.”
“They were able to handle us up front on the offensive line and did the same on the defensive front,” said Keyser coach Tom Preaskorn. “We can’t take anything away from Frankfort and Philips, he does an excellent job.”
After a scoreless first quarter that included an impressive goal line stand from Keyser at the one yard line, Grant Noel got the Frankfort offense rolling midway through the second quarter with three consecutive option runs that took the ball to the Keyser 37. After Ely, Noel and Lynch advanced the ball further towards the goal line, Lynch would ultimately take it in from the one, and along with Matt Miller’s kick, the Falcons took a 7-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
On the opening possession of the second half, Grant Noel took advantage of Keyser keying on Lynch to do damage on the ground himself. Noel used a 14-yard option run to the right for the touchdown to give Frankfort the 13-0 lead.
For their third touchdown at the 11:24 mark of the fourth quarter, Lynch scored from six yards out to give Frankfort a commanding 19-0 lead. Frankfort’s final score again came from Lynch, this time from one yard out, to give the Falcons the 25-0 victory.
When the dust cleared in the wake of Frankfort’s game 10 victory over Keyser, the unthinkable happened. Frankfort finished as the fifth seeded team in the WVSSAC playoff ratings and Keyser finished as the 12th seed, meaning the two would meet again the following week in the first round of the state playoffs. For the first and still only time in the history of the rivalry dating back to 1976, the two would meet twice in one season, and in back to back weeks.
Adding to the drama and intrigue of the situation, as Frankfort’s Falcon Stadium was not deemed an acceptable location to host a playoff game due to the showers being too far from the field, the playoff matchup would be played at a neutral site, Rannells Field, the home of the Hampshire Trojans. Another different factor is that rather than the traditional Frankfort/Keyser Friday night matchup, the playoff game was to be played on Saturday afternoon at 1:30.
One week after being dominated by Frankfort to the tune of a 25-0 shutout, Keyser reversed its fortunes in the playoff game, stunning the Falcons 7-3 in a thriller for the ages. It would take what ranks near the top in the biggest plays ever in the rivalry to get the job done, a 97 yard punt return for a touchdown by senior Brian Wilt.
According to the November 17, 1997 game story in the Mineral News-Tribune, “At the 5:49 mark of the fourth quarter, with the Golden Tornado trailing 3-0, senior Brian Wilt took the ball at the 3, circled back through the right side of the end zone, and took advantage of endless space down the right sideline to midfield, where he was then the beneficiary of a huge block by Jason Riggleman on Frankfort’s punter to complete his run from end zone to end zone.”
“I had a few blocks, picked them up, saw the lane, and just took off,” Wilt stated.
“I can’t say enough about him. He always gives 120 percent. He can provide a big play at any time. When I saw him break free, I just hoped he didn’t get tackled,” Keyser coach Tom Preaskorn said.
It was an equal contest in every other way, with the exception of that 97 yard punt return for a touchdown. Statistically, both teams had nine total first downs, six rushing by Frankfort, seven rushing by Keyser. Frankfort’s other first down came through the air; Keyser’s two other first downs came by way of penalty. The Falcons rushed for 148 yards, while the Golden Tornado edged Frankfort’s rushing output with 159 yards.
Frankfort punted five times, Keyser four. Both teams fumbled the ball twice, with each losing one of their two fumbles. Frankfort was penalized 10 times for 48 yards, Keyser was penalized 8 times for 65 yards.
It was basically gridlock, a defensive struggle for both sides. The only score in the game up until Wilt’s go-ahead touchdown was a 27-yard field goal by Frankfort kicker Matt Miller with 2:08 remaining in the third quarter.
The game, and the play, remains one of the most talked about in the history of the rivalry. Frankfort concluded their season that day with a record of 9-2 after the first round playoff loss. Keyser would advance to the second round of the playoffs where they lost to Weir at Brooke’s Memorial Stadium the next week. The Golden Tornado finished the season with an overall record of 8-4.
The 1997 football season was successful and memorable at both ends of Mineral County, with the two teams combining for an overall record of 17-6, giving each fan base a victory in the series, and of course, in the second matchup, giving us all a memory, good or bad, that has stood the test of time.