If last year is any indication, the days that Carter County’s high school football programs would judge success solely upon beating the other one are behind them.
But even if West Carter’s 2019 loss to East Carter spurred the Comets to their second district title in program history, the first one they’ve won outright and their deepest trip in the postseason ever, that doesn’t mean they haven’t noticed the absence of the Barrel in their trophy case for 362 days and counting.
“It revealed a lot of our character,” West Carter coach Daniel Barker said of the Comets’ 39-34 loss in Grayson last year, “and credit to our kids, they came back and they were hungry, and in the long run benefited from it. But we obviously would love to have learned a lesson in a different way than to lose to your rival.”
The victor of Friday’s county clash in Olive Hill will get a two-for-one special on barrels — the traveling trophy, which is the third barrel in the series, and another barrel to commemorate the 50th game in the series. That one the winner will get to keep forever.
Olive Hill businessman Todd Antrobus and his family donated the 50th game barrel as well as a replica that will be raffled off, Barker said. They were sanded, stained and painted by West Carter track and field coach and assistant athletic director Ryan Raybourn and wife Becky.
Raiders coach Tim Champlin played at Pikeville and was an assistant at Greenup County, Rowan County and Fairview, each of which boasts one or more blood-boiling rivalries. Champlin said the one he’s currently affiliated with ranks among or better than any of those, “solely based on the traveling trophy.”
“I never would’ve thought that that would have such meaning,” Champlin said, “but it’s something physical that you can take away with you after the game, and you get to keep for an entire year and have with you.”
The traveling Barrel currently in use is the third in that series. Like any good rivalry, even if it’s a largely good-natured one, there is some dispute in play — in this case, regarding the whereabouts of the first two Barrels, which have been filled up with scores of the teams’ first 41 meetings.
East Carter has the first Barrel, Barker said. According to Champlin, that one has gone “missing.”
“There’s a lot of rumors about where it’s at,” Champlin said, after chuckling and pausing to choose his words carefully. “Some people say they have it. I don’t know.”
West Carter is in possession of the second Barrel. The Comets kept it after beating the Raiders, 12-10, for the third straight time in 2011, because that was the last year that Barrel had space to record a winner, Barker said.
“I’m looking at it right now,” Barker said as he answered interview questions by phone in West Carter’s coaching office on Wednesday afternoon. “The second Barrel is in dispute. People at East feel like the Barrel should go to the team with the most wins on it, and people here were under the understanding it would go to the last team to win it.”
Confirming that perspective, Champlin said: “It’s supposed to be whoever’s got the most wins on the Barrel takes it home. That’s not happened yet.
“I’ve heard there’s three (Barrels),” East Carter’s coach added. “I’ve never physically seen three. It’s almost like the myth of Sasquatch or Bigfoot.”
Barker said he and Champlin have discussed the need to make arrangements for the ultimate fate of the third Barrel, to prevent further disagreement.
If all that makes the Carter County rivalry sound bad-blooded, it isn’t, Barker said. He might know better than anyone, having spent three years as an assistant coach at East Carter. Barker has won and lost Barrels as both a Comet and a Raider.
“We’ve got two really proud communities,” Barker said. “While I think people in our communities are friends, there’s a good-natured rivalry in Carter County between Olive Hill and Grayson.”
The Raiders and Comets both went on to have sparkling seasons from last year’s encounter. East Carter, which ended a five-game series skid, won seven games, their most in 14 years. West Carter won eight times after that, won their second district title and advanced to the state quarterfinals for the first time ever.
That has created anticipation even higher than usual of this year’s encounter, as well as it being the first high-profile sporting event in Carter County since COVID-19 hit in March. West Carter distributed 300 tickets and sent 200 to East Carter, Barker said. The Comets prioritized family of players and cheerleaders in the ticket queue, and by the time tickets were released to the general public on Wednesday, they’d all been spoken for before the doors opened at 9 a.m.
“It’s not always the most high-profile game,” Barker said, “but anybody in Carter County, this is the one game they ask you about. It’s a huge deal.”
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