“Chris Thurman who?”
It’s difficult to imagine many Gate City football fans who don’t know the answer to that question. And if discretion truly is the better part of valor, it probably won’t be painted conspicuously on any pep banners this week.
The former Gretna coach makes his first visit to Legion Field on Friday night when Virginia High (4-3, 1-1) faces the third-ranked Blue Devils (6-1, 2-0) in Clinch Mountain District action.
Before coming to Bristol, Thurman led the Hawks to two consecutive Group A, Division 2 state championships — including a 52-8 romp over Gate City in the 2007 title game.
A revenge motive is fine for an opera plot, but probably has little bearing in this matchup. The Bearcats are a different team and this is a different time. Gate City has new personnel and a new head coach.
While Blue Devils coach Bill Houseright employs essentially the same staff that scouted Gretna in 2007, there has been little temptation to analyze Thurman’s past tendencies in the run-up to this week’s ballgame.
“His personnel is a little different that what he had over there,” Houseright said. “We need to look at what they’re doing right now. We’re not too worried about what he did up the road.”
The Bearcats seem to have come a long way since Thurman’s arrival. But as far as the skipper is concerned, the work remaining to be done vastly outweighs anything that he might’ve accomplished so far.
“We’ve gotten better and the kids are playing harder. But I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination that we’ve arrived,” said Thurman, who has used Gate City film this week to highlight the kind of execution he wants to see from his own players.
Establishing a thriving offseason weight-room culture at Virginia High is one of his top priorities. In the meantime, Thurman still manages to win some hands with the cards he’s been dealt. The Bearcats have a better than average shot at the Division 2 playoffs this season.
Since Thurman scrapped last year’s Wing-T offense for a one-back spread, a couple of old ’Cats have learned new tricks.
Tailback Damon Dock is having a breakout senior season, rushing for close to 1,000 yards already.
“In the ‘T’, they spread the ball around. In the one-back set, he’s the man,” Thurman said. “He’s done extremely well.”
Quarterback Andy Bower, meanwhile, has rushed for nearly 700 yards while passing for about 1,300. There has been some downside: He’s also thrown 15 interceptions. All in all, the Bearcats’ offense gives Gate City’s defense a lot of space to defend.
“They’re as dangerous as a cocked gun. They spread you all over the place and they have the speed to go the distance,” said Houseright, whose defense has faced the spread more often than not this season.
The Blue Devils’ playbook actually includes some spread, although it hasn’t been called upon so far. Gate City hasn’t really passed the football much out of any formation.
What it has done with ruthless efficiency is run behind solid execution at the line of scrimmage. Running back Joseph Vaughn has rushed for 901 yards and 13 touchdowns. Quarterback Dusty Clark has gained 551 yards on 85 jaunts
The Blue Devils’ attack appears straightforward, but deceptively so.
“They’ve got some nice counters. Out of those sets, they can go either way. But it’s pretty much ‘Here it comes!’” Thurman said.
“Stopping the run has been a weakness for us. We’ve got to tackle well or we’re going to be in trouble.”
Houseright doesn’t expect Gate City’s fans to be any more fired up over Thurman’s Bearcats than anyone else the Blue Devils have faced this season — which is another way of saying they’ll be as fired up as ever.
“Our fans have been great no matter who’s been coming in here,” Houseright said. “The community has been great, and I think we absolutely feed off of that. It’s very important to our kids.”
SW Va. Capsules
Powell Valley (2-4, 1-1) at J.J. Kelly (6-0, 1-0)
The Indians’ 30-20 win over the Vikings last year was a huge confidence booster. After having had an open date to cook up a game plan, the boys from Bullitt Park would like nothing more than to shake that confidence. Multiple-threat QB/RB Myron Pinkston poses a big play problem the Kelly defense must resolve. The longer the Wise offense keeps the ball out of Powell Valley’s hands, the easier that will be. RB Lucas Kerns was Kelly’s offensive hero last week. Given how much the Indians’ success rides on the shoulders of its offensive line, Alex McArthur and Brandon Osborne can just as easily rise to the occasion.
Rye Cove (0-6, 0-2) at Thomas Walker (3-2, 3-0)
Both of Rye Cove’s Cumberland District losses have been by a touchdown or less. Steven Vikara gained 86 yards and scored last week despite an injured hand. The Pioneers’ Cumberland title bid remains on track, but they’d better pay attention. Historically, Rye Cove has been a spoiler at Ewing. Jared Brewer (59-287) and Cody Williams (54-209) lead the rushing attack. QB Ryan Scott has passed for 282 yards and four TDs.
John Battle (2-5, 0-2) at Lee High (0-5, 0-0)
If Lee High wins this football game, would it really be considered an upset? For all the Generals’ woes, they clearly have something to build around: RB/QB Tyler Graham, who had a couple of astounding big plays at Wise last week and was on the verge of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Graham is only a sophomore. There is definitely a common future the Generals should be cheerfully working toward, oblivious to this season’s record.
Clintwood (5-1, 1-0) at Appalachia (4-2, 0-1)
Last week’s impressive 24-11 win at Shelby Valley, Ky., bumped the Greenwave to a 21.0 power rating — second in Region D only to Division 2 Gate City (23.9). Fresh off a 34-7 win over St. Paul, Appalachia is looking to rake in a power points bonanza as well as throw another wrench into the Lonesome Pine District race. If a slippery football and muddy field conditions are thrown into the mix, this could be a more interesting contest than many might expect.
Castlewood (1-5, 1-2) at Ervinton (2-5, 0-4)
The Blue Devils are one of many teams affected by the flu. As of Tuesday, the practice squad was down to 20 due to the vile virus. Quarterback Elliott Wohlgamuth has been leading Castlewood’s offense. Fresh off a 22-6 win over Twin Valley, the plucky Rebels hope to break their Cumberland drought. Lee Turner provides an open-field threat for Ervinton.
J.I. Burton (5-1) at Honaker (3-4)
This is not your typical Honaker football team — it is extremely young and very inconsistent. Of course, that’s what makes these Tigers so potentially treacherous. “This is a trap game for us,” said Burton coach Jimbo Adams. “If we play the way we’re capable of playing we should be all right. If we don’t we could be in trouble.” Martinez Miles has rushed for 818 yards and 11 TDs for Burton.
Coeburn (2-5, 2-1) at Twin Springs (2-4, 1-1)
Like we said last week, the Blue Knights aren’t out of this thing yet. Then again, neither are the Titans. Adam Hill was the BMOC at crunch time against Rye Cove last week. After a week off, Twin Springs looks to fire up its wide open offense. QB Aaron McCoy and WRs Kris Jordan and Nathan Sluss fuel the Titans.
Pound (4-2) at Hurley (5-1)
The Wildcats look to get back on track — and back in the end zone — after getting shut out by Burton last week. RB Aaron Balthis (73-786, 7 TDs) remains a key reason for Pound’s success. Pound is Hurley’s first Virginia opponent in four games. RB Gary Blankenship (108-814, 8 TDs) leads the Black Diamond team, which remains on a Division 1 playoff trajectory.
St. Paul (3-3) at Twin Valley (0-7)
Smarting from last week’s loss to Appalachia, the Deacons remain in strong shape for the playoffs. QB Tyler Phillips and RB Denver Fritz fuel the St. Paul offense, which scored only once last week despite nearly 300 yards of total offense.