CLINTWOOD — After winning its second consecutive Region D championship at Carl Smith Stadium last week, Clintwood’s football team certainly had no qualms about returning to Virginia-Wise for Saturday’s state semifinal meeting with Holston.
But artificial turf is no substitute for sacred ground.
“The community definitely wanted us to play at Clintwood. That was part of our reasoning,” said coach Rick Mullins, whose squad is preparing to make its first half-state appearance at Ralph Cummins Stadium since the eponymous coach won a state championship there in 1975.
The Greenwave (11-1) will face the Region C champion Cavaliers (10-2) in Saturday’s Group A, Division 1 state semifinal game. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.
Clintwood enjoys one of the weightier gridiron traditions in the state, the continuity of which has endured for decades irrespective of the team’s postseason fortunes in any given year.
In contrast to the weathered patina of the Greenwave, Holston’s football program seems as shiny as a newly-minted penny. Before Holston alumnus Jason Matlock took over as coach last season, the Cavaliers hadn’t been in the playoffs since 1995.
“I was in the seventh grade then,” said the 26-year-old Matlock, who spent two years as an assistant coach at Abingdon before returning to Damascus.
“I wanted to come back and coach at my home school and be successful. I knew that with the type of kids we had here, we could be successful.”
Successful, they have certainly been — and progressively so. Last year the Cavs lost 27-20 to Bath County in the first round of the playoffs. Last week, Holston held off the Chargers by a 13-3 margin.
Damascus doesn’t yet have a national fast food chain permanently devoting its interior decor to Holston football. But the local merchants are nevertheless enthusiastic backers.
“A lot of the stores are still decorated for homecoming. It’s all black and red and white. It’s a really fun time here,” Matlock said.
Holston’s split-back veer has been a fun time for the Cavalier offense. Three seasons ago the Cavaliers backfield featured Zach Titman, one of the state’s fastest athletes. While the Cavs probably don’t have a player as flashy as Titman, the collective effort has been far more fruitful.
Running back Eric Mefford has rushed for 1,560 yards and 19 touchdowns while counterpart Jeffrey Bramlett has rushed for 902 yards and 12 TDs. Quarterback John Pratt — who has proven his salt on the triple-read option — has rushed for 480 yards and eight scores.
Pratt can also throw it, totaling 815 passing yards and 13 touchdowns. Jordan Blevins and Dillon DeArmond are the leading receivers. The backs also have good hands. Mefford alone has had 350 receiving yards and four scores.
“They don’t beat themselves,” Mullins observed. “They’re very content to move the football ... to get 3 or 4 yards a carry and keep the chains moving.”
Clintwood running back Chris Robinson (173-1,512, 27 TD) averages almost 9 yards a pop. Punishing fullback Derek Robbins and speedy halfback understudies Alec Osborne and Devin Elswick give the Greenwave more than one way to break a big run.
Quarterback Heath Counts, meanwhile, can make opponents pay for loading up the box. He’s thrown for 1,161 yards and 15 scores. Trey Meade (13-340, 3 TD), Ryan Lyle (13-192, 1 TD) and Nick Robinson (11-140, 1 TD) fan out and Counts finds the open man.
As holding Bath County to a field goal last week would attest, Holston has been playing extremely stingy defense out of its base 5-2. The Cavs have been particularly tough up front.
Mullins has confidence that his interior linemen will rise to the challenge. It’s a tradition within the tradition.
“For years and years, Clintwood has been known for offensive and defensive linemen,” Mullins said. “At a lot of schools, you can’t get anybody to play on the line. Here, it’s an honor.”