While there is still plenty of football to be played, Region D’s leading playoff contenders in both divisions are starting to separate themselves from the pack.
The Division 2 ratings provide the most orderly snapshot of postseason expectations.
At the head of the list is Gate City (5-1, 1-0) which tops the regional D-2 rankings with a 22.7 rating. A significant, if less tangible, development for the Blue Devils’ is the No. 2 statewide ranking they’ve been given by the Associated Press.
Last week’s 22-6 homecoming win over Bluefield, a ranked West Virginia opponent, confirms that Gate City is a much better football team than anyone anticipated.
“I don’t know if all the stuff is quite what it’s cranked up to be, but we’re tickled to be where we are,” said Gate City coach Bill Houseright, whose team travels to John Battle (2-4, 0-1) for a Clinch Mountain District tilt Friday.
“We are playing with a lot of passion and a lot of energy. If we keep doing that and correct a few things, technique-wise, we have a chance to be OK”
Gate City is also the second-highest rated Division 2 team in the state. Gretna (4-0, 1-0) is currently No. 1 with a 23.5 rating. The Hawks are coached by former J.J. Kelly coach Kevin Saunders.
The second-highest rated team in Region D is the only unbeaten team in the region: J.J. Kelly (5-0, 1-0), which takes on Lee High (0-4, 0-0) in a non-district game at Carroll Dale Stadium on Friday.
Coach B.I. Salyers remains a hard-bitten realist. The toughest half of J.J. Kelly’s schedule remains in front of it: Lee, Powell Valley, Clintwood, Appalachia and J.I. Burton.
“We have a very tough schedule for the rest of the year. It could kill us, or we can go out and play the way we’re capable of playing,” Salyers said.
“Our kids understand that the teams we’ve played, we should’ve beaten. But they also understand that every week we have to get better as a football team. If we can do that, we have a very good shot of making the playoffs at the end of the year.”
The other two highest-rated Division 2 teams in the region will square off Friday when Lebanon (3-2, 0-1) travels to Virginia High (4-2, 1-0) in a key CMD showdown.
The Pioneers, who carry a 17.2 rating, are skippered by veteran John Adams, whose long career at Lebanon was briefly interrupted by a short stint at VHS. The Bearcats, who have an 18.0 rating, are thriving in their first season under Chris Thurman.
While there is yet room for surprises in the Division 2 outlook, the Division 1 playoff race is crammed full of twists, turns, plots and subplots.
Hurley (5-1, 0-0) is the highest-ranked Division 1 program in Region D with an 18.5 rating. Three of the Rebels’ victories are out-of-state opponents, but the VHSL crunches the numbers on those guys, too. Hurley could also skin that cat by winning the Black Diamond title.
St. Paul (3-2, 3-0) and Thomas Walker (3-2, 3-0) are in the front of the Cumberland District pack, boasting ratings of 14.8 and 13.6, respectively. And irrespective of ratings and overall records, neither Twin Springs (2-4, 1-1) nor Coeburn (1-5, 1-1) or even Rye Cove (0-5, 0-1) are out of this thing, yet.
That leaves four Division 1 programs in the Lonesome Pine District — all with winning records and higher ratings than any of the Cumberland programs — facing a bottleneck.
Clintwood (4-1) is the second-highest rated Division 1 team in the region with an 18.2 rating it stands to bolster this week if it can pick up an out-of-state win over Shelby County, Ky. (5-1).
J.I. Burton (4-1, 1-1) has a 17.2 rating and hopes to strengthen its position in both the LPD and divisional standings when it travels to Pound (4-1, 0-1) on Friday. The Wildcats have a 16.6 rating.
Appalachia (3-2) — the recent subject of a New York Times feature story — has a 13.8 rating. The Bulldogs travel to St. Paul for a non-district game Friday.
“When you’re playing non-district schedules and you have that many teams with winning records, it tells you something about the district,” said Burton coach Jimbo Adams. “What will it tell you if Appalachia goes over there and whips St. Paul?”
Gate City (5-1, 1-0) at John Battle (2-4, 0-1)
The Blue Devils are the overwhelming favorite, but Houseright doesn’t expect his players to take the Trojans lightly. New Battle skipper Ryan Witten is a “fiery guy,” Houseright said, that has his players flying around on defense and running an unpredictable package on offense. Gate City’s offensive game plan is probably predictable — RB Joseph Vaughn and QB Dusty Clark running it down the Trojans’ throats.
Clintwood (4-1) at Shelby Valley (5-1)
The Greenwave defense — led by the likes of Devin Dotson, Cameron Vanover, J.D. Bevel and Nick Robinson — is once again an impressive unit. This week, they’ll get a serious workout. Shelby Valley RBs Dillon Hughes (83-1,008, 8 TDs) and B.J. Roberts (58-764, 10 TDs) are two of the most productive carriers Clintwood will faced.
Coeburn (1-5, 1-1) at Rye Cove (0-5, 0-1)
Both of these teams are coming off serious beatings at the hands of LPD opponents. Hard-nosed as they are, the Eagles may be a little worse for wear. Multiple-threat RB Steven Vikara could miss this game due to a broken hand.
Lee High (0-4) at J.J. Kelly (5-0)
Salyers has a lot of respect for the abilities Lee High RB Tyler Graham and says the Generals are a better football team than their record indicates. He also thinks Brian Coomer can turn the Lee High program around, if he is given the time and support he deserves. Salyers should know; he didn’t fix the Indians overnight. Jeremiah Cooke, Nate Addington, Justin McGinnis and Garth Nicely pace an Indians defense that has pitched three shutouts and given up three TDs over five games.
J.I. Burton (4-1, 1-1) at Pound (4-1, 0-1)
If Bill Parcells is right in saying “your record says who you are,” then the Raiders and Wildcats are neck-and-neck in the LPD race and the ongoing scrap for a shrinking number of Division 1 playoff berths. Raiders slotback Martinez Miles averages 116 yards per game. Pound RB Aaron Balthis averages 145 yards per game.
Appalachia (3-2) at St. Paul (3-2)
Look for Deacons QB Tyler Phillips (22-42-2-408, 4 TDs) and WRs Bryce Lawson, Corey Ellis, Reid Edmonds and RB Denver Fritz to challenge the Bulldogs defense. St. Paul has some real talent that is disciplined and well-deployed. Cody Carter, Tyler Barker and Chase Morelock share the carries in a Bulldog ground attack that accumulated over 300 yards last week against Patrick Henry. Win or lose, St. Paul could still make the playoffs. Appalachia’s margin is slimmer.
Haysi (1-4) at Castlewood (1-4)
Both of these teams have depended heavily on heroics from their respective quarterbacks. The Tigers are led by QB Chris Fleming; the Blue Devils, by QB Elliott Wolhgamuth. Fleming likes to sling the football around, while Wohlgamuth runs the option.
Twin Valley (0-6) at Ervinton (1-5)
While Honaker was steamrolling the Panthers in Black Diamond District play last week, the Rebels were giving Twin Springs all the Titans wanted. Having successfully shed Southwest Virginia’s longest losing streak, Ervinton isn’t eager to return to its old habits.