Union at Clintwood headlines Southwest Virginia football openers

George Thwaites • Aug 30, 2013 at 4:23 PM

BIG STONE GAP — At least for the time being, Clintwood’s decades-old gridiron traditions remain rooted in place. Not so, the world that surrounds it.

This week’s harbinger of change is the amalgam of old and honored rivals. The Greenwave kicks off the 2013 campaign with Union at Ralph Cummins Stadium Friday night.

While this isn’t a first-time meeting, the context is decidedly different.

The Bears are now classified as a 2-A program, members of the newly-minted Mountain District. That’s correct. The Mountain. As though there weren’t any mountains elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Clintwood is a 1-A member of the Cumberland. Both are preseason favorites in their respective leagues.

In the new VHSL epoch, there can be no championships at stake between them. In other eras, in other incarnations, it seemed one always was.

“From the stories I heard, there were some pretty classic games between Appalachia and Clintwood in the 1970s,” said Union coach Travis Turner. “In the late 80s and early 90s, Clintwood and Powell Valley were playing twice a year.”

Turner honors the past, but his Bears are completely living in the present. They live entirely for the next play. Given how brutal Union’s schedule is anyway, Turner would just as soon have retained the familiar season opener with Lee High. The mandates of the district dictated otherwise.

The Clintwood-Union series promises a healthy gate with implications down the road for both. While we won’t see it until November, the power points reaped by Friday’s winner could be weighty.

At the same time, the game remains a non-district season opener with all the usual virtues and vices.

“This is by no means a make-or-break game for either one of us,” said Clintwood coach Rick Mullins, whose team’s most recent scrimmage was with a George Wythe squad that ended the Greenwave’s 2012 campaign.

“But it is a big game and a big test for both of us. Both teams are using it as a measuring stick. Both will come out knowing what they need to do to get better.

“The winner is going to be feeling pretty good about themselves. And if it’s a close, well-fought ball game, the loser can take a lot of positives from it, too.”

The most obvious thing one notices about Union is the experience in the backfield. Quarterback Tanner Hall and stalwart running backs Jake McCray and Mekyah Davis are veterans of the winningest Bears team in its admittedly short history. An 8-4 finish isn’t 15-0. But it was the first season that Union unified into a semblance of the football program that Mullins publicly predicted it would become.

The most obvious thing one notices about Clintwood is who is missing. All-state running back Gavan Meade is gone. All-state all-purpose player Robbie Mullins is gone. And while quarterback Dalton Dahley did, indeed, step into his injured older brother’s footsteps to help lead the Greenwave to its 2011 state championship, Dylan’s graduation is also significant.

That may not matter. Clintwood’s offensive line has been touted as the physically strongest in school history. Think about 2011 — and imagine a front more potentially punishing than that one.

“I think their offensive line is dangerous. They can take over a game in a hurry,” said Turner, whose offenses at Union have thus far reflected more smash mouth fundamentals than the passing antics he was known for as a rope-throwing quarterback in high school and college.

Other openers of interest this week: Gate City faces coal country’s consensus No. 1 when it travels to Richlands to confront Greg Mance and the moody Blues; J.I. Burton bids two slots against Lee High‘s ace QB at Five-Star Stadium; Wise Central and Eastside will have chips on their shoulders in Coeburn; smoldering Castlewood awaits the arrival of Haysi; and Twin Springs and Rye Cove both go Hogo-ing at Northwood (Saltville) and Holston (Damascus) respectively.

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