Four weeks into the regular season and five of the Lonesome Pine District’s six football teams sport winning records.
Powell Valley (1-3, 0-0) is the odd man out — and somehow it feels odd given Big Stone Gap’s illustrious state championship football tradition.
Last week’s 35-0 loss at Harlan County doesn’t provide a lot of tailwind for the Vikings as they head into Friday’s LPD clash with J.I. Burton (3-0, 1-0) at Bullitt Park.
In the past, Powell Valley has benefited from playing tough Kentucky opponents. This time, coach Phil Robbins thinks Harlan might have posed too much of an overmatch for the Vikings to make much headway.
“They were a very good football team, very big and very quick up front,” Robbins said.
“I thought in the second and third quarters our kids played as hard as they could play. We played hard the whole time. Physical. But we finally wore down and they scored a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.”
In the end, the Vikings “had no offense,” according to Robbins. They couldn’t block Harlan. Good passes were dropped. Open receivers were overthrown. Things fell apart.
Now, the Vikings prepare to host a district opponent they used to own but lately haven’t managed to rent. Powell Valley hasn’t beaten J.I. Burton on a football field since 2004. The Vikings’ 30-26 loss in Big Stone in ’07 was the last time Robbins felt his team was competitive in the series.
Aside from the naturally heated rivalry between the Big Stone Gap and Norton communities, this game has been marked by controversy in recent years.
Prior to the 2007 meeting, rumors were flying that Powell Valley believed J.I. Burton intended to spy on the Vikings’ pregame preparations. Raiders coaches took umbrage at an opaque tarp that suddenly appeared on the fence surrounding Powell Valley’s practice field.
Last year’s pregame hoopla was dominated by former Powell Valley running back Malcolm Pinkston, who had transferred to J.I. Burton after having been kicked off the Vikings’ squad by Robbins earlier in the summer.
J.I. Burton’s clash with Powell Valley at Lawson-Fitchko Stadium was Pinkston’s first week of eligibility to play with the Raiders. The game, which Burton won 48-7, was also Pinkston’s last in a Norton uniform. He was dropped from the roster the following week due to an undisclosed disciplinary lapse.
“It was just a horror show. It was a nightmare,” Robbins said. “But I guess that’s just the way things go.”
Pinkston’s minutes-younger fraternal twin, Myron Pinkston, remains at Powell Valley where he is the Vikings’ top offensive weapon.
Pinkston was averaging a little over 100 yards per game rushing before missing last week’s game with a shoulder injury. Bryan Rentfrow and Dathan Davis are also getting significant carries. Lucas Fannon and Kenny Burke pace the receiver corps as sophomore quarterback Jake Huff continues to develop.
“I think they’re getting better and better. At some point in time, it’ll show,” Robbins said.
It’s already been showing for the Raiders, who boast Southwest Virginia’s most-recruited player in slotback Martinez Miles, an extremely talented rusher, receiver and defensive eraser.
Fellow slotback Russell Rice is also a big-play threat, while wide receiver Timmy Goins is a bigger factor on the routes thanks to Jansen Bates having turned out to be a pleasant surprise under center.
Powell Valley will be wearing throwback jerseys Friday night, but Robbins downplays the significance of the gesture. Despite all the inevitable emotional overtones of this game, Robbins would just as soon take emotionalism out of it.
“You play on emotion for a little while and after the emotion wears out, you wear out pretty quick. I think it’s fundamentals, not emotion, that makes a difference,” Robbins said.
Gate City (3-1) at Appalachia (2-1)
Last week, Appalachia brought out the throwback jerseys. This week, Gate City will introduce the Bulldogs to throwback execution at the line of scrimmage. Gate City RB Joseph Vaughn and QB Dusty Clark have both committed unfortunate turnovers in key situations this season, but their respective virtues have so far outweighed their vices. Aside from relying on a much larger collection of RBs and WRs to move the chains, Appalachia has also been a lot more eclectic in its offensive play selection than Gate City. The Bulldogs will need every trick in the book.
Clintwood (3-0) at Lebanon (2-2)
In the unlikely event Clintwood’s Rye Cove Rule appeal falls through, this one could have big implications for the Division 2 playoffs. For Lebanon, it probably does no matter what. Don’t be fooled: The Pioneers remain a very good, albeit star-crossed football team. Last week, Lebanon had 260 yards of total offense to Gate City’s 191. RB Dylan Smith and QB Andrew Jessee pace the Pioneer offense. Solid execution at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football continues to be a hallmark for the Greenwave.
St. Paul (1-2, 1-0) at Twin Springs (1-3, 0-0)
Both of these teams like to throw it. Titans QB Aaron McCoy racks up big numbers with WRs Kris Jordan and Nathan Sluss leading the way. Jordan, also a punter, is averaging 43 yards per kick with a 4.3 to 4.4 second hang time. The return of QB Tyler Phillips allows the Deacons to find other troubling uses for erstwhile signal caller Trever Hileman. Bryce Lawson leads the receivers, while Denver Fritz has been St. Paul’s most productive RB.
Castlewood (0-3, 0-1) at Rye Cove (0-3, 0-0)
Rye Cove’s losses have been to J.I. Burton, Sullivan North and Appalachia — a pretty tough slate so far. Last week’s 36-6 loss at Riggs Stadium could’ve been a closer game for the Eagles, who have been up to some entertaining offensive funkiness with QB-WR Chris Lane and RB-QB-WR Stephen Vikara. QB Elliott Wohlgamuth continues to lead The Blue Devils’ veer attack.
Thomas Walker (2-1, 2-0) at Coeburn (1-3, 1-0)
If common foe comparisons count for anything: Coeburn upended Ervinton 31-6; Thomas Walker beat the Rebels 36-8 last week. It could be a close, hard-fought game. Cody Williams, a threat both rushing and receiving, leads the Pioneers in scoring with five TDs.
Twin Valley (0-4) at Pound (3-1)
If the Wildcats keep beating everyone they’re supposed to, sooner or later they’re going to beat somebody they’re not. Aaron Balthis (48-481, 3 TDs) paces the Pound ground attack and is also the Wildcats’ leading receiver.
Lee High (0-3) at Harlan (1-3)
This is Harlan, as opposed to Harlan County, which has beaten both Lee High and Powell Valley. Senior RB Andrew Link paces the Harlan offense with 668 yards rushing and eight scores. RB Tyler Graham anchors the Lee offense.
Ervinton (0-4) at Big Creek, W.Va.
The Rebels have yet to win, but they’ve also yet to be shut out. The Owls, who are located in War, W.Va., got smashed 42-0 by Matewan last week.