The 2011 campaign kicks off with a bang Friday night as defending VHSL Group A, Division 2 state champion Gate City travels to Richlands to face the team that nearly won a Group AA, Division 3 crown last year.
The Blue Tornado, whose bid for a 14-0 season was derailed by a 23-17 loss to Poquoson in the state final in Lynchburg, is clamoring to make another bid for unbeaten status despite losing 20 seniors off last year’s squad.
“Oh yes, they’re fanatics up there. The community is really behind them,” said Gate City coach Bill Houseright, whose 12-2 squad clinched it all in a 27-17 win over Gretna at Salem.
“They’ve got a lot of things going for them. They’re like us. They lost some quality kids. But they’ve got some kids coming in to replace them.”
The Blues still have quality kids from last season who don’t need replacing. They remain solid up front, with 6-foot-2, 240-pound all-state center Taylor Wade and massive 6-7, 315-pound tackle Josh Hess, who has already committed to Florida International.
They’ll be blocking for future Division I player Devon Johnson, who has verbally committed to Marshall. Johnson (6-3, 230) rushed for 118 yards in last week’s 44-0 benefit game victory at Bassett.
Returning QB Reece Strong passed for 126 yards and a touchdown. He also kicked a 41-yard field goal.
“They get the big back in the I and they run that spread they always run. Defensively, they’re basically the same team, too,” Houseright said. “When people have success doing what they do, they aren’t going to change anything.”
Last year, the Blues prevailed 31-0 at Legion Field in a game that saw Gate City remain close until it all finally gave way in the final stanza.
“We battled our tails off, but we were on the field a long time defensively and got a little tired. Everything just kind of exploded in the fourth quarter. That can happen in a game like that, sometimes,” Houseright said.
Like last year, the Blue Devils faced the Tornado without Dusty Clark, but this time they’ll also be without running back Joseph Vaughn and several other veterans of that game.
Gate City’s offense retains a solid interior line, and quarterback Nick Bowen is ready to play a bigger leadership role than he did in 2010. The Blue Devils boast a diverse cast of skill players — Micah Bledsoe, Cory Franklin, Tyler Bird, Seaver Elliott, Derick Miller and Montana Morris among others — that could augur a more open attack.
The Blue Devils’ defense promises to be aggressive as ever. Getting lined up has been a work in progress.
“We’ve got a lot of people flying around, just sometimes flying the wrong way,” Houseright said. “We just want to continue to work and improve. Whatever happens Friday night, we’ll get better from it. As bad as it was, I think we got better from last year’s ballgame.”
SW Va. preview capsules
Union (0-0) at Lee High (0-0)
The annual “Battle of the Boot” has become the “Brawl for the Bucket” as South-West Insurance has retired the old bronzed kicking shoe in the wake of Powell Valley’s consolidation with Appalachia into Union. The winner of this year’s classic Lee County vs. Wise County clash will take possession of a new traveling trophy: The Coal Miner’s Dinner Bucket. Generals coach Andy Palko is pleased to be part of this renovated tradition, including the rivalry itself. “I don’t know how emotional a group we have. They’re not a rah-rah bunch. But we did well in our two scrimmages and they’re anxious to play a game,” said Palko. “It’s kind of an honor for us to be the first team to play Union. That’s a unique opportunity our kids have. And I think they’re looking forward to it.” Lee High’s offense looks to impose its will with a strong offensive front and running backs Tyler Graham and Dylan Anders. The Bears will enter the fray with a significant advantage in depth. The Union offense will also boast a strong offensive front, with Jake Huff taking the snaps and Tyler Barker and Mekyah Davis leading a deep running back corps.
Central (0-0) at Thomas Walker (0-0)
The Pioneers take the first bite of their filling non-district schedule with this week’s opener against Central, a Division 2 amalgam of former J.J. Kelly and Pound veterans. Thomas Walker boasts a talented trio of running backs, including Cody Cain — the fastest back in the Cumberland District — veteran playmaker Jared Brewer and fullback Brandon Moore. Surprises are expected from QB Justin Catron. The Warriors bring a loaded squad that is filled out on both sides of the football with former starters that wore either Wildcats or Indians uniforms last season. Individual standouts will emerge as the season progresses. But in a warm August opening night, Central’s sheer depth alone should prove a daunting challenge for Division 1 Thomas Walker.
Holston (0-0) at J.I. Burton (0-0)
When these two teams last met at Emory & Henry’s Fullerton Field in the 2009 Group A, Division 1 state semifinals, the Raiders prevailed 2-0 — the lowest-scoring playoff game in the VHSL record book. That’s the only significant history between the two teams, but Burton coach Jimbo Adams expects it to be significant enough. “They’ll come over here and give us everything they’ve got,” said Adams, who ranks Cavs coach Jason Matlock as a rising star among regional football coaches. “They’re going to come over here and play a physical game and hit us in the mouth. Our kids have been told.” Holston’s unique blend of veer and spread will challenge Adams’ defensive players. The Raiders, meanwhile, will run the ball at Holston with veteran RBs Malik Miles, Riley Maggard and Colby Dean. Bulked-up QB Tanner Crowder could have a breakout season passing the football.
John Battle (0-0) at Twin Springs (0-0)
The last time the Trojans played in Nickelsville, they lost. Last year’s 35-0 season-opening rout of the Titans at Bristol was the first of four wins Battle accumulated over its first five outings. A promising new era of Trojans football crumbled to dust in the second half of the season for as many off-the-field reasons as on. Steve Wright, the fourth Battle head coach in five seasons, looks to reboot the star-crossed program. The Titans 2010 season ended in a 42-7 playoff loss to Clintwood that its veterans are eager to put behind them. QB Ritchie Morefield heads a talented Twin Springs offense that utilizes RBs Austin Hazlett, and WRs Jarod Finch and Tyler Hazlett.
Haysi (0-0) at Castlewood (0-0)
The Blue Devils were arguably a bigger beneficiary of Wise County consolidation than Eastside, which opens at Sullivan North tonight. Castlewood’s influx of former St. Paul skill players (Trevor Hileman, Reid Edmonds, Addison Rasnick, Jacob Chafin) should prove a good fit for a Blue Devil offense that increasingly reflects J.I. Burton influence brought to Castlewood by assistant coach Doug Campbell. Haysi football has seen better days than it has in recent years. After its worst season in more than a decade, many Tigers fans are resigned, if not enthusiastic, about eventual consolidation in Dickenson County. Even so, veteran coach James Colley remains one of the most creative play callers in the region and the Tigers always seem to have talent for him to play with. QB Derick Blair and WR Dakota Stanley are cases in point.
Rye Cove (0-0) at Northwood (0-0)
Both programs had lean seasons in 2011. This mutual opener boils down not to the leanest, but the meanest. The Panthers begin anew under first-year coach Mark Frye, who coached eighth-grade football at Northwood for more than 20 years. His work is cut out for him, inheriting a tradition of no playoff appearances since 2006 and four consecutive one-win seasons. Rye Cove was arguably more competitive than last year’s 2-8 finish reflects. The War Eagles finished strong, with wins over Ervinton and St. Paul, before a respectable 27-20 season-ending loss to Twin Springs. Strapping QB Chase Rollins and a sturdy offensive front lead the Warbirds’ offense.