NORTON — Could one ask for a football matchup more dominated by defense than J.I. Burton’s 2-0 win over Holston in last week’s state semifinal clash at Emory & Henry?
Don’t look now.
The Raiders (11-2) will take on their second defensive powerhouse in as many weeks when they face Altavista (12-1) in Saturday’s VHSL Group A, Division 1 title game in Salem.
The game, the first of a Group A championship doubleheader at Salem City Stadium, is set for a noon kickoff. The contest marks Burton’s sixth state final appearance since 1990, and fifth under head coach Jimbo Adams.
“It’s a great facility and a great atmosphere to play in,” said Adams, whose last appeared in the final in 2006 at Harrisonburg. “The kids are excited about it. We’re tickled to death to be back in the final game.”
The Colonels narrowly beat West Point 14-6 at Altavista in half-state play. The Raiders’ win by a safety over the Cavaliers last week was the lowest scoring contest in the history of the VHSL championship series.
Adams wonders if that might be comparing apples to oranges. The Region C versus D clash was on artificial turf. The A/B game was in thick mud at Altavista’s English Field.
“Our game was a combination of offensive mishaps along with an outstanding Holston defense. And as well as we played defensively, they did some things to help us as well,” Adams said.
“(Altavista) played on a very saturated, bad field. I don’t know who it affected most. But I’ve got the film and you can see the kids lose footing and having trouble holding on to the ball.”
The Colonels, whose only loss was to Gretna, won a share of the Dogwood District title for the first time since 1971. Their 10-0 win over Madison County in the opening round of the Region B playoffs was their first shutout of the season.
The Raiders accumulated five shutouts prior to last week’s win — including a 36-0 takedown of Lonesome Pine District rival Clintwood.
Defensive ends Alex Mazza and Aaron Looney have been conspicuous playmakers for the Raiders, combining for nine sacks in the postseason. Jessee Coffey — a key leader of Burton’s offensive line — collected an interception at linebacker last week.
Adams thinks a major key to the Raiders’ defensive ascendancy has been the evolution of linebacker Evan Stewart. The 6-foot-1, 182-pound junior is the younger brother of former Raiders quarterback Ethan Stewart, who led Burton to the final in 2006.
“Early in the year we had to make the choice between Evan being a linebacker or quarterback,” Adams said. “I think initially he was kind of torn. But his true love was defense and he has accepted that role.”
“He’s our quarterback on defense. He’s the guy that puts us in the right situation and the right spots. He’s really grown into his own skin.”
Martinez Miles has obviously been an asset for the Raiders at safety, although freshman understudy Riley Maggard had some stellar defensive plays while filling in for Miles late in last week’s game. Maggard’s day included an interception and the game-winning blocked punt.
Miles, who was sidelined in the second half last week after a facemask dug into his side on a tackle, is Burton’s chief offensive weapon and Southwest Virginia’s top running back. He has rushed for 2,078 yards and 25 touchdowns as a tailback, slotback and out of the wildcat formation.
Miles was a freshman defensive back for the Raiders when Burton last made the finals.
“Our locker room is full of good, young players right now. And I remind them that there’s no guarantee they’ll get back to this point,” Adams said. “Certainly that’s our goal every year. But you have to have a lot of things go your way.”
Altavista’s run-oriented offense has been led by tailback Chris Clark, who has rushed for 1,082 yards and 18 scores. Clark came out in the second quarter of last week’s game with a foot injury and is questionable for the championship game.
This may not be so catastrophic for the Colonels’ offense, which can fall back on several solid ball carriers, including wide receiver Johnny Wimbish, a speedster who rushed for 72 second-half yards last week.
There is little question that Clark — the Region B Defensive Player of the Year — would be badly missed on the other side of the football. The four-year starting linebacker leads his team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks.
Adams is depending on gut-check contributions from other Raiders like fullback Malik Miles and wideout Timmy Goins — whose punt receptions helped Burton win the battle for field position last week.
“(Goins) is one of the guys that has to make some plays for us to have a chance,” Adams said. “Him and Andy Short and both of our quarterbacks, Jansen Bates and Tanner Crowder.
“They’ve got too much speed on defense for us to consistently move the ball with one person.”