He didn’t come riding in on a horse.
He wasn’t wearing a 10-gallon hat.
He wasn’t sporting a shiny new badge.
But Thursday on the first official afternoon of VHSL football practice, there was a new sheriff in town at Salem High School.
Don Holter is running the show now in Salem’s football program.
Full workouts start Monday, but the Spartans underwent some opening-day conditioning drills Thursday, roughly four months after Salem announced Holter’s hiring and the resignation of ultra-successful Stephen Magenbauer.
All Magenbauer did in 15 seasons was win 169 games and five state championships.
Holter had a hand in the last three as an assistant coach from 2015-18. He played at Salem under Willis White, whose Spartans won four state titles.
Holter is preparing to do what Salem has done since White took the job in 1983 — win.
“Somebody the other day asked me about rebuilding,” he said. “We reload. There’s a recipe for success. I’ve experienced that, and that’s what I bring with me.”
Salem officials kept a tight lid on Magenbauer’s resignation until the news broke March 26.
The team’s returning players were summoned to a meeting in the school’s auditorium where Magenbauer handed the reins to Holter.
“I was really surprised,” senior offensive lineman Gabe Fairchilds said. “I didn’t learn about it until I was in my biology class with [teammate] Chandler Sutphin. He said, ‘I think it’s going to be about Coach Mag retiring.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’ ”
Ditto for senior running back Isaiah Persinger.
“I was a little shocked ... ‘Coach Mag stepping down! Isn’t that something?’ ” Persinger said.
Senior tight end/linebacker Bobby Pinello said he had an idea something was brewing. When he realized Holter would be the new coach, he was ecstatic.
“I heard it here and there about something going on, but I was actually really excited because coach Holter’s been coaching [linebackers] since I was a freshman,” Pinello said. “He’s like my ‘football dad.’ That’s what I call him.
“He’s an interesting guy. He definitely knows what he’s doing. I was all hands in the air when I heard that.”
Fairchilds was happy the school did not wait long to give Holter the job.
“We were all thinking, ‘This could go either way,’ but the more we came in here and worked with him as head coach, the more we came to welcome him as a group,” the Salem lineman said.
“He’s very knowledgeable. He’s very engaging with the players. As a man, he’s intimidating, but if you play the sport he promises to love you.”
If the transfer of power at the top was surprising, so was Salem’s 35-33 loss to Jefferson Forest in the first round of the Region 4D playoffs after the Spartans jumped to a 21-7 lead.
Instead of a continued pursuit of a fourth consecutive state championship, the Spartans suffered just their second first-round postseason loss at home in school history, finishing 7-4.
“You can’t win ‘em all,” Pinello said. “JF was a pretty good team. We dwelled on it for a little bit. We’re ready to go.”
Holter, a 1988 Salem graduate, is embarking on his first head coaching position after previous stints as an assistant at Franklin County, William Fleming and Lord Botetourt prior to joining Magenbauer’s staff in 2015.
Pinello said there has been an up-tick in the intensity level of Salem’s offseason workouts under Holter.
“We do a lot more running, working on explosiveness, footwork,” the two-way starter said. “We didn’t do a lot of that stuff when Coach Mag was around.”
Fairchilds said the Spartans ran out of gas in 2018.
“I guess most of our seniors had worn out,” he said. “Our practices were lazy as a team. We need to pick up the pace.”
Salem has just nine seniors on the 2019 roster. Leadership will have to come from many sources.
Ultimately, the onus is on the players, Fairchilds said.
“I get to run the weight room,” he noted. “Sometimes I’m lagging the weight room behind. I’ve got to take responsibility and realize I need to push us more. It’s all about being part of the team.”
Salem opens the 2019 season Aug. 30 at Amherst County. The Spartans also have back-to-back road games against two opponents they lost to last year: Northside and Blacksburg.
Salem has a slightly new revamped coaching staff.
Holter will continue to coach Salem’s inside linebackers with John Fedison in charge of the defense.
Adam Briye, a former lineman at Tusculum University, will replace Magenbauer as the offensive line coach. Former Salem player Ryan Murphy and ex-William Fleming and Hidden Valley assistant Matt Kesler are new assistants.
Lewie Pitts will remain Salem’s offensive coordinator.
Persinger, who ran for 1,763 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in 2018, will join junior Zavione Wood, who rushed for 249 yards in a win over Patrick Henry, as one of Timesland’s top running back tandems.
Persinger, who might be summoned for double duty at defensive end, expects business as usual on offense with Pitts calling the plays even though the starting quarterback job is open.
“Coach Pitts is an amazing coach,” he said. “I love the way he coaches. He’s one smart man.”
Salem has an enticing home game Oct. 18 against Martinsburg (W.Va.), which owns a 42-game winning streak.
“I’m excited,” Fairchilds said. “I just want to go in there and smack some people around.”