This year, Region D was expanded to include a fourth district comprised of five Division 2 schools, two of which were former Group AA programs and four of which were entirely new to the region.
The result of this restructuring? Powell Valley (8-3) faces Gate City (8-3) in Saturday’s Region D, Division 2 football championship.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Vikings coach Phil Robbins.
The Division 2 game is the nightcap of a Region D doubleheader at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m., or 90 minutes following the conclusion of the Division 1 championship game, which begins at 12:30.
The Division 2 clash renews an old rivalry between former Lonesome Pine District littermates.
“I cried when (Gate City) left our league,” said Robbins, whose team beat Honaker 33-28 in last week’s opening round of the playoffs. “I thought the rivalry was tremendous. Every fall you were playing for a championship and sometimes you were playing for two.”
The Blue Devils failed to win the inaugural Clinch Mountain District championship, but beat district champ Lebanon 31-22 last week.
Gate City coach Nick Colobro is a VHSL Hall-of-Famer just like Robbins. Table-turning feats like last week’s win over the Pioneers testify to those credentials. Most of the hometown detractors who second-guessed last year’s rare absence from the playoffs have quieted down.
“I just wish people who do the moaning and groaning had to prepare for them,” said Robbins, who believes Colobro’s program excels at bringing out the most the talent in hand has to offer. “They scheme themselves offensively into touchdowns, defensively to keep you from getting first downs or into the end zone.
“You know, times your personnel ought to let you get it — but (Gate City) doesn’t let you have it.”
Powell Valley won the regular season meeting with Gate City by a 38-14 margin at Bullitt Park.
Colobro isn’t looking for history to repeat itself — and not only because Gate City was a bit thin due to injuries in the last meeting. By the same token, he doesn’t expect either program to depend on the element of surprise.
“I guess we’re so familiar with each other, I don’t know how much newness you can keep coming up with,” Colobro said. “Both of us are playing pretty good right now. Probably the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win Saturday. Or the team that makes the most plays, however you want to put it.
“Usually when somebody is making plays, somebody else is making mistakes.”
While not quite as massive as Honaker’s offensive line, Gate City’s front has some big old boys, the biggest being guard Quinton Jones (6-foot-4, 297 pounds).
Blue Devil running back Tyler Parks has rushed for 1,323 yards and 22 touchdowns. Quarterback Tihlee Anderson has rushed for 485 yards and 12 TDs, plus 702 passing yards with five scores. Payton Jenkins had his best outing of the year last week, rushing for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Powell Valley quarterback Cedric Mitchell has passed for 1,243 yards and 13 scoring strikes while rushing for 544 yards and six touchdowns. On special teams, he’s returned a kickoff and two punts for touchdowns. Delmas Lawson (31-440, 4 TD) leads the receivers, but Terrell Turner, Malcom Pinkston and Andrew Meador are all capable targets. Myron Pinkston paces the ground attack, with 949 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
“You’ve got to match Gate City’s enthusiasm. You’ve got to match their physical play. You have to be at the same level or higher than they are,” Robbins said. “And you have to be perfect. Offense, defense and kicking game, there is no margin for error.”
While a couple of coaches in the region may have have grumbled about the Region D football championship doubleheader at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, you’ll never hear J.I. Burton coach Jimbo Adams complain about it.
“We’re 8-0 playing there, but then, we’ve never lost a playoff game at Lawson-Fitchko, either,” Adams said. “In the last 10 years since we’ve been here, we’ve gone 10-1 in regional contests. The one we lost was the Mud Bowl in Appalachia.”
The Raiders (10-1) make their fifth consecutive Region D, Division 1 championship game appearance Saturday, taking on Clintwood (7-4) at Carl Smith Stadium at 12:30 p.m.
Adams is an up-front supporter of the current Region D championship format. With corporate sponsor Alpha Natural Resources picking up the tab, Adams sees these games as both a sweetheart deal played in a big event atmosphere, and said it ultimately benefits all high school football in Region D.
“To be against something like this, quite frankly, would be a disservice to your kids,” he said.
The Green Wave is itself no stranger to Carl Smith Stadium, losing 27-7 to Powell Valley in last year’s Region D, Division 2 title game.
“We set a goal of trying to get back there,” said Clintwood coach Rick Mullins, whose school successfully appealed to compete in Division 1 this year by virtue of the Rye Cove Rule.
Getting there required two consecutive victories against Appalachia, including last week’s 41-16 postseason win.
“There were some times through the year that it was kind of in question,” Mullins said. “But we’ve fought and clawed and scratched and I guess we got ourselves back to where we wanted to be.”
Having learned long ago not to place too much trust in luck, the Raiders are much-accustomed to clawing and scratching. Riddled with injuries, Burton’s unbeaten roll was knocked off course at Gate City. Since then, Burton has rested and recuperated as best as it could while testing untapped talent on its depth chart.
Slot backs Martinez Miles (35-369, 9 TD) and Devin Talley (23-302, 3 TD) played conspicuous roles in last week’s 48-6 opening-round win over St. Paul.
“We got five touchdowns from two kids who didn’t start for us offensively through the first seven games,” Adams said. “Martinez Miles and Devin Talley are both potential big-time playmakers. They were having to wait their turn because of people in front of them.”
Jaymil Sensabaugh (62-543, 9 TD) played a limited role at the slot last week but could see more carries this week. Josh Miles (79-435, 11 TD) leads the charge out of the backfield. Veteran quarterback Ethan Stewart provides leadership and balance to Norton’s trademark double slot offense. This year he’s passed for 1,084 yards and 12 scores, with Jacob Caudill the leading receiver.
“They run an unusual offense. You don’t see it often,” Mullins said. “But this game all boils down to blocking and tackling and who does it best. I don’t care if you’re running wing-T or shotgun or double-wing. I don’t think trickery will win. It’s going to come down to old-fashioned football.”
Clintwood’s Chris Robinson (144-904, 12 TD) leads the rushing attack, with fullback Derek Robbins (57-469, 5 TD) and Alec Osborne (39-394, 8 TD) also delivering some punch. Quarterback Heath Counts has 1,070 passing yards and nine touchdowns.
“They’re big, strong and have good feet. Offensively, they methodically try to take what you give them. They’re not greedy,” Adams said. “Defensively, they run to the ball extremely well.”
Over the years the Raiders obviously have developed an affinity for playing on artificial surfaces. But when J.I. Burton beat Clintwood 28-18 in the regular season, it was on dirt and grass. “The last time we played them we were playing for a district championship,” Adams said. “We play things one game at a time. Do we have a few different things to show them? Of course. But we didn’t go into a district championship game holding anything back.”