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Running back Brayden Doyle goes through drills on Thursday during practice for Charleston High School.

CHARLESTON — There they alighted from the bus, smiles wide, red shirts slicing through the dark, about to embark on something no one really knew how to do.

Sure, everyone had heard about it, but for nearly three years, it was just a foggy fantasy. Not anymore. Finally, Charleston’s football team was going to ring the bell that sits inside its home field, a tradition reserved for home wins, but one that was happily tweaked for this instance, the final piece of a night of the ultimate catharsis.

Charleston’s players descended from the roadway, down a hill and through the stadium gates. The impending escapade brought a sense of incredulity. This act, one never seen or heard by anyone in this group since they enrolled at Charleston High School, was really happening. What started as a request on the bus ride was on the cusp of becoming a treasured moment.

“Let’s go ringggg it,” one voice said, running down the hill.

“Everyone’s going to hate us,” cracked another.

“Don’t ring it until everyone’s here,” someone else cautioned.

Some four hours earlier, on the other side of the state, Charleston ended its 19-game skid with a 35-25 win over Macomb in Jerry Payne’s first game as head coach. The Trojans scored the game’s final 18 points, a comeback aided by some Macomb miscues but executed by a hungry group that sensed the opportunity, grabbed it and held on with Superman’s grip.

“We just kept pushing them and they really responded,” Payne said. “They did everything we asked them to do.”

Senior running back Brayden Doyle was the headliner with three touchdowns and a two-point conversion run on the go-ahead score, a 24-yard scramble from quarterback Nick Cheney set up by Cory Spour’s interception.

It was the Trojans’ first win since Oct. 14, 2016, an overtime triumph over Salem on the same field they had just gathered upon. The bell had been silent since, and no one really thought about when its ring might next pierce the air. Payne set a goal for Charleston to win a game this year, but it was not at the top of his mind. Above all, he wanted a team that would compete, be coachable and wanted to improve over the course of the year. Those are the goals that come in the infancy of an anticipated lengthy turnaround job. A win would come in there somewhere, he thought.

“I never really dreamed that first win would be that first game out,” Payne said.

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They lined up, single file with the beams of phone camera light upon them, next to the bell’s moorings behind the south end zone, seniors first. At 1:56 a.m., the first clang filled the air. Each player snatched the clapper, pulled it and therein released all the agony from the skid, all the doubt that they’d never hear the clash of its bronze.

“We pretty much never brought that up,” Doyle said. “We hadn’t done it before, so I guess we didn’t think about it.”

The sound continued for about two minutes, a couple car horns punctuating the end. One player tugged the string so forcefully that it sent the bell rotating in a circle. It didn’t matter that a light rain persisted, that it was hours past curfew or that some neighbors would receive a sudden awakening. That sucker never sounded so pure.

In some ways, the night felt like a home game. By the time Charleston’s charter bus stopped on Smith Drive behind the stadium, the parking lot directly below was full, forcing some of those nocturnal supporters to park on the surrounding grass behind the softball field.

“I expected the parents of the kids who didn’t drive, but to see as many as we did, that was pretty surprising," Payne said. "They were waiting for us to experience this.”

The idea began earlier on the bus ride, prompted by a few seniors. The night before, a guest speaker ended his motivational session by giving the team a present. It was a football. He told the team that when they beat Macomb, each player would sign the ball and give it to Payne. One day later, senior Kam King carried the ball to Payne at the front of the bus and led the voices who asked to do the previously unthinkable.

“I said, ‘Let me think about it,’ but knowing all along that it’s been so long. We let them know when we pulled into town that we’d let them ring it,” Payne said. “The three coaches on the bus with me, we all looked at each other and just went, ‘Yeah.’ We just didn’t tell them.”

The result itself is an encouraging start for Payne’s varsity coaching career and his roster. Most of the starters, Payne said, had not seen much varsity time before. They sat behind seniors a year ago, watching an 0-9 season from the sidelines. Doyle, Spour and a few other defensive backs were the lone returning starters. A group of new varsity players and a handful of experienced anchors ushered out an ugly chapter of Trojan football history.

There may still be plenty of distance to travel before Charleston enters the playoff conversation. While an important and impressive win nonetheless, Macomb struggled to a 2-7 record last year. Beating those teams is one step, but Charleston’s future tests against playoff-caliber teams will be an important barometer, too. A victory so fast, though, establishes a real sense of belief and progress rooted in a tangible result. There’s no more imagining a win. It gives Payne’s vision even more credibility and room for him to stretch it.

“We raised the bar,” Payne said. “Now we start coaching them up even more. Things are going to get a little tighter now. We’ve seen what they can do, and we expect more.”

That expectation includes, of course, a shorter stretch of silence for the bell.

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Contact Patrick Engel at (217) 238-6856. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickEngel_

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