WISE — It hasn’t been easy being green.
On Saturday afternoon at Carl Smith Stadium, it got easier.
After 28 years without winning a regional football title, Clintwood broke the drought with a dramatic 24-20 victory over J.I. Burton in the Region D, Division 1 championship game at Virginia-Wise.
The win marked the first Region D football championship for the Green Wave since the Ralph Cummins era. Clintwood (8-4) advances to play Bath County (8-4) on the road in next week’s Division 1 state semifinals.
“With all the tradition we’ve got at Clintwood, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 28 years since we’ve won a regional title,” said coach Rick Mullins, whose squad avenged a 28-18 regular-season loss to the Raiders.
“These guys have clawed and scratched and fought. They deserve everything they get. They really do. It’s been an unbelievable ride.”
Clintwood lost to Powell Valley in last year’s Division 2 title game. Under coach Bobby Meade during Justin Hamilton’s senior season in 1999, the Green Wave faced Honaker with the Division 2 crown at stake. Heath Miller led the Tigers to victory that day.
Saturday marked the fifth consecutive Region D championship game appearance for the Raiders (10-2). Burton was Division 1 state runner-up in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
“Give credit to Clintwood. They fought hard and their kids are excited right now. I think they’ve got an excellent shot of bringing home a state title,” said J.I. Burton coach Jimbo Adams.
Stingy defense and a balanced offense enabled the Green Wave to prevail Saturday. It was a collective effort, but it was impossible to ignore Chris Robinson’s singular contributions on offense, defense and special teams. This was especially true in the thrilling final quarter.
With 4:32 remaining in the game, J.I. Burton went up 20-17 on Ethan Stewart’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Talley. After Clintwood shut down the Raiders’ 2-point conversion rushing attempt, Robinson fielded the subsequent kickoff and returned the ball 47 yards to the Norton 28-yard line. Five snaps later Robinson took it across from the 6 for six.
“There at the end of the game, we challenged our guys to hit some blocks and hold them just a little bit longer. A little more effort and Christopher did a great job getting it up the field,” Mullins said.
Clintwood’s Derek Robbins, who’d hit a 32-yard field goal for the 17-14 advantage at the beginning of the final period, added his third PAT kick of the day to put the lead out of field-goal range with 2:35 left to play.
Had Robbins missed his last kick, a Raiders field goal to tie was probably out of the question. With placekicker Will Godsey hobbled, Burton didn’t attempt a single PAT kick on the day. Kickoff coverage and return schemes were also affected by injuries.
“We’ve been beat up and banged up all year. I think the place it showed the most today was the kicking game,” Adams said.
Accordingly, field position haunted the Raiders to the bitter end. Burton started its final possession at its own 26. Nine snaps later — seven of which were passing attempts — Stewart almost connected with Jacob Caudill for a 33-yard touchdown pass.
Caudill, who had three catches for 93 yards, got a hand on the ball and threatened to pull it in for the score, but Robinson broke it up with a bone-jarring hit. With 41 seconds remaining on the clock, it was a done deal for the Green Machine.
“We just knew they were going to go deep. That guy went up and I had to pop him. I had to make a defensive play,” said Robinson, who led the Green Wave with 78 yards rushing, including his 21-yard touchdown run that initiated scoring in the first quarter.
Stewart wrapped up his senior season with 141 yards passing, including his 43-yard touchdown throw to Caudill in the first quarter. He also hit a 2-point conversion toss to Caudill and led the Raiders in rushing with 56 yards.
“Today just wasn’t our day,” Stewart said. “We’ve been facing injuries and all types of adversity throughout the season. But you can’t make excuses in a championship game like this.”
Jaymil Sensabaugh rushed for 40 yards, including his 6-yard scoring run that put the Raiders up 14-7 at 7:54 in the third quarter.
Clintwood quarterback Heath Counts passed for 132 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown pass to Evan Vanover that tied the game at 14 with 6:20 remaining in the third quarter.