Union High School has had one head coach since its inception in 2011. That coach is Travis Turner, whose name has been a staple in Wise County for decades. Turner, a native of Appalachia, was a star quarterback who won a state title as a signal caller under his dad, legendary coach Tom Turner. The quarterback turned coach was hired in part to smooth over the consolidation of Appalachia and Powell Valley. At the time of consolidation, things were contentious. For Turner, it meant he was stepping into a hornets’ nest with high expectations.
While easing the transition was part of the rationale of his hiring, the main reason he got the job was because of his acumen as a coach. The results have spoke for themselves. 68-20 overall through eight seasons, never missing the playoffs, even after a rough first year in the Bears went 5-6. Other than the slow start in 2011, Turner has won at least eight games every season since. Beginning in 2013, Union has went 55-10, while winning double digit games the each of the past three seasons with Turner at the helm. At this stage, Union doesn’t rebuild—they simply reload.
Coming off such a successful 2017 campaign, Turner spoke about the challenges facing the current team as well as how changes to the staff has affected preparation for 2018.
Turner spoke glowingly of the seniors of the 2017 team, emphasizing replacing three and four-year starters such as Tanner Kennedy, Jeb Stidham and James Mitchell will be a tough task. However, he has been impressed by how well the team is gelling.
Much to the dismay of Turner, the successful senior class came up a little short.
“The Appomattox game was tough because it seemed like we had this great comeback, down 20 points only to march down the field and come up short,” said Turner. “We simply ran out of time, a few more minutes and we could have won the game.”
Filling the void in leadership left with a unit of kids like Mitchell, Kennedy, Bryce Lane and Preston Walker is an area of concern for the eighth year coach. However, Turner feels like rising seniors, such as Nick Cooper and Brandon Bunch, will take on more of a leadership role. The return of quarterback Bailey Turner, Travis’s son, is vital in both the leadership department and the Bears’ offense. After the musical chair situation under center last year, having a healthy Bailey gives his dad a steady hand and a second coach on the field.
The depth at quarterback now goes from a weakness in 2017 to a strength in 2018. Turner, who was All-Conference as a sophomore before getting injured as a junior, is the clear leader. Backing him up is Andy Jones, a freshman southpaw who showed loads of talent leading the JV team last season. Coach Turner said Jones reminded him of another southpaw gunslinger, former Powell Valley star Brad Robbins. Wide receiver and kicker Justin Falin would take snaps in an emergency situation.
The offense will vary by situation. There will be spread concepts as well as the wing-T, which served as the bread and butter in 2017. Coach Turner feels the spread takes advantage of the athletes he has at the skill position, noting Falin at wide receiver and tight ends Nick Guerrant and Connor Giza. Expect to see the Bears line up and attempt to dominate the line of scrimmage. Turner expects the offensive line to pave the wave for the Bears in 2018. A wealth of talent at running back will allow the Bears to stay fresh. Mason Polier, Avery Jenkins, Aaron Stidham and Bryce Guerrant will all get touches at running back.
2018 brings changes for Turner. Along with losing so many starters, he also lost his defensive coordinator, Michael Rhoades, who took the head-coaching job at Eastside. Jay Edwards takes over at defensive coordinator. Edwards will not stray far from the strategies Rhoades used during his tenure. However, look for Edwards to bring with him strategies from his time at Haysi.
The biggest splash this offseason came from the addition of former Powell Valley defensive coordinator Barry Jones. Jones brings an aura of success to Turner’s staff, having won nine overall state titles as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator and serving on the staff of Gate City before his most recent stop as the Volunteer High head coach. Jones is something of a mythic figure in Big Stone, with Turner saying, “You can tell everyone loves him. He constantly has former players coming up to reminisce over old times.”
After losing nine starters, the defense is the unit with the most turnover and instability. Turner has been blessed with incredible depth in recent years, but this year he is forced to have more players play both sides of the ball. Turner looks for the defense to come together over time.
The success that Turner’s father, Tom, had at Appalachia is no secret in the coalfields of southwest Virginia, it is also not a secret throughout the Commonwealth. Having played for his father, there are plenty of lessons Turner has brought with him to his coaching career. The former Appalachia quarterback said the main lesson he took from his father was how much he cared about every kid on his team. Football is just a game but life is bigger than the sport (despite what some of us might think), and it’s important to develop young men with character.
“Growing up, I was a ball boy every year. I can remember taking kids home from practice and having kids come over to eat dinner,” said Turner. “When I was 10 or 11 years old, I remember traveling around to all the coal camps. If a group of kids were playing football, dad would give them new high school footballs.”
There has always been extra pressure on Turner from all corners, who had had to follow in the footsteps of his legendary father, as well as another Hall of Fame coach in Phil Robbins, who won seven state titles at Powell Valley. Those pressures were simply what came with integrating two communities that were bitter rivals for decades. Turner simply chuckles now, having survived the early hurdles to become one of southwest Virginia’s most successful coaches.
He knows how important the community and kids are to this small football loving community.
“It’s a great football community,” said the coach. “None of our success is possible without the hard work of all the coaches and young men who wore a Bear uniform.”
There are many adjectives you could use to describe Travis Turner. Hard-working, disciplined, detail oriented, friendly and an excellent football mind. However, the two qualities that stand out the most are his care for his players, on and off the field. His humility regarding crediting everyone except himself for the success of the Union program is also remarkable. It is tough to find two better qualities in a head coach and it goes a long way in explaining why Union has found success.
Seth. Sports fan. Big Stone Gap native. Freelance writer. Knows the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 as well as the species of the symbiote from Spider-Man (Klyntar). A decade plus covering local high school sport in one capacity or another. Takes himself very, very seriously. Hire me!!!!