The Blue Devils (10-1) compete for their first Region D football championship of the Bill Houseright era when they take on the Pioneers (7-4) at Virginia-Wise in Saturday’s Division 2 title game.
The game, the second of a championship doubleheader at Carl Smith Stadium, is expected to kick off at approximately 4:30 p.m.
Because of construction at the site, spectators will be required to park at either J.J. Kelly High School or the Greear Gymnasium parking lot on the other side of campus. Free shuttle services will transport fans between the lots and the stadium beginning at 10:30 a.m. Fans are encouraged to arrive earlier than usual.
In last year’s Region D finals, the Pioneers beat Gate City 19-13. The Blue Devils got out of Lebanon with a 13-7 win back in September.
“They gave us a fit up there,” said Gate City coach Bill Houseright, whose team beat Powell Valley 33-12 last week. “They’re a pretty good ballclub with good skill people. They do a lot of things well. We’ve got to go out and play the best we can and try to cut down on the miscues and see what we can do.”
In that fumbles hurt both squads the last time, ball security should be a priority all around.
“It’s been a long while since we’ve seen them. They’ve got a good team. They seem to be doing the same things, only better,” said Lebanon coach John Adams, whose team beat J.J. Kelly 30-6 last week.
“We think we’ve gotten better. We’re going to need to run the ball against Gate City. We can’t win it by throwing it alone — but we’re hoping to do a little bit of that, too,” Adams said.
While Dylan Smith has done a yeoman’s job at running back, it’s difficult not to take notice of Lebanon’s passing attack given that the Pioneers haven’t been this airborne since Andy Musick took the snaps in 1992.
Wide receiver Jerome Cobb is the Pioneers’ No. 1 matchup problem on the routes. Tight end Kevin Widener has already signed with Liberty University, while receivers Bob Jones and Nick Bush help spread the field.
All that pass-catching talent probably wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans, though, if quarterback Andrew Jessee hadn’t grown into his present leadership role.
Jessee threw for 155 yards in the regular-season meeting with Gate City. He passed for 188 yards and two touchdowns last week, while rushing for nearly 70 and a score.
“He does a great job back there. He knows where he is on the field and has a good presence of what’s going on around him,” Houseright said. “He does a great job feeling pressure and his escapability is pretty good. He’s a concern for us. We’ve got to contain him.”
Lebanon will have its own containment issues. Gate City running back Joseph Vaughn has rushed for 1,321 yards and 22 touchdowns while quarterback Dusty Clark has scrambled for 997 yards and 13 scores. Under the radar running back Trey Clark has picked up 492 yards and three TDs with a 6.6 yards per carry average.
“We work real hard for one another and that’s the key to our success. We have a lot of unselfish players,” Houseright said. “We have good running backs, but our kids are doing a lot of good things when they don’t have the ball.”
Terrific work ethic, selflessness and toughness seem to be the dominant traits of this year’s Blue Devils. Lebanon’s roster is not lacking similar qualities.
Offensive tackle Lucas Smith, who broke his leg in the second game of the season against Powell Valley, returned to action last week for about 25 plays. The 6-foot-3, 260 pound senior has brought added depth to the interior line — and a dose of inspiration to his team.
“We saw the film. That was a bad break. As bad as Joe Theismann’s,” Houseright said. “For him to get back after that, he’s got to want to play pretty badly. He’s got to be one pretty tough youngster.”