The 2010 state championship capped a dream season for Gate City football coach Bill Houseright.
Three games into the 2011 campaign, Houseright would probably like to wake up and find out it’s all been a nightmare.
The Blue Devils are 0-3 for the first time since 1960 — Harry Fry’s first season back in Gate City after a short assignment in Saltville.
Gate City (0-3) will look to bring that skid to a halt in Friday’s Clinch Mountain District opener at Lebanon (1-2).
“We just need to be a little more consistent in what we’re doing in all phases of the game and keep working to get as close to being a good football team as we can be,” said Houseright, whose team fell 27-7 to Sullivan South last week.
Consistency on either side of the football has remained elusive this season, in large part due to an atypically high injury rate.
Last year, the Blue Devils started the season with a couple of high-profile players hobbled. But that was a deeper and more veteran squad. It adjusted, then thrived when all were on board.
In August, Gate City started with a promising array of skill players and high hopes of deploying them in diverse ways. But injuries haven’t merely been abundant; the injury pattern has disrupted unit continuity on a week-to-week basis.
Houseright declined to share the gory details. As he put it: “It’s all just part of the game.” Suffice to say that a lot of key skill kids who haven’t been sidelined have been playing out of position. It’s a domino effect. Offense, defense and the kicking game have all been affected.
“It’s a lot of different things. No one thing you can put your finger on. Just one of those things where you have a whole lot of fixing to do and hope you can get it fixed,” said Houseright.
Union shut out the Pioneers 19-0 last week, but this opponent is by no means a respite on Gate City’s murderer’s row of a schedule. Lebanon moved the football on the Bears but had three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — that kept it from being a much closer game.
“We felt that we did a pretty good job on defense. They hurt us with a few passes, but that’s what you’ve got to expect when you crowd the box like we did,” said Lebanon coach John Adams.
Pioneers quarterback John Duty has a revenge motive. He debuted for Lebanon in last year’s 44-0 loss at Legion Field. Running back Chris Belcher has racked up nearly 400 yards already. Receivers Bryan Salyers and Colby Browning have been sharing the wealth on the routes.
It may look like an ideal time to ambush the Blue Devils. Adams doesn’t expect an easy go of it, however.
Far from it.
“They’re typical Gate City. They’re good up front, play good defense and try to run the football,” Adams said.
“We sure are eager for a win. And I know they are.”
Southwest Virginia Capsules
Union (2-1) at Virginia High (2-1)
Union’s win over Lebanon last week was an impressive milestone for the new program. Virginia High’s 14-13 victory over Tennessee High was simply shocking. Remember, this is a Bearcats team that previously lost to John Battle. Clearly, conventional expectations are out the window this season. Virginia High’s success defending against Tennessee High’s rushing game should be a concern for the Bears. Likewise, Union’s 200 passing yards against Lebanon demands the Bearcats’ attention. Tyler Barker and Mekyah Davis lead the Bears rushing attack.
J.I. Burton (3-0) at John Battle (3-0)
If Virginia High’s victory over the Vikings was last week’s shocker, the Raiders’ 35-34 win over Lee High at Ben Hur was the week’s thriller. It was a “profiles in courage” outing for Burton QB Tanner Crowder, who passed for 134 yards, two scoring strikes and two critical two-point conversion tosses as the Raiders grappled with Lee’s physical defensive unit. This week, they face the Trojans, who are 3-0 for the first time in over two decades. Battle has been solid on defense, allowing only one touchdown over those three games. Josh Blackburn, the Trojans’ defensive leader, also commands the offense at QB. He threw two TD passes in last week’s 34-0 romp over Holston.
Lee High (1-2) at Harlan County (3-0)
Last week, for the second time in the season, the Generals looked impressive but still lost. Tyler Graham rushed for a school-record 332 yards on 29 carries, scoring four TDs. This is, by the way, the same Harlan County that beat Gate City 48-7 a couple of weeks ago. The Bears are the fifth-ranked 5A team in Kentucky and the eighth-ranked school in the state overall. They can run the football and — as they proved at Gate City — and can also pass effectively out of the shotgun.
Wise Central (2-0) at Castlewood (2-1)
The Blue Devils came up with some big plays in knocking off Thomas Walker last week, Castlewood’s superior depth looming large in the second half. This week, the Blue Devils’ endurance will be called upon. Wise Central will show up well-prepared to pound the football, but has an as-yet-unrealized potential to throw it. Addison Rasnick, who had 147 all-purpose yards last week, exemplifies the versatile athleticism of Castlewood’s skill players.
Thomas Walker (0-3) at Ervinton (0-3)
It’s been a hard three outings for RBs Cody Cain and Jared Brewer, with the Pioneers beginning the season with losses to Wise Central, Lee High and Castlewood. It could be a hard four quarters for the Rebels, who took a 42-6 drubbing at the hands of Haysi. One day, they’ll all be riding the same bus for Dickenson County High School. Last week, they clearly were not.
Clintwood (1-1) at Grayson County (3-0)
After taking the week off, the Greenwave should be well-rested for a serious road trip to Independence to face the unbeaten Blue Devils, who rolled to a 52-13 win over Rural Retreat last week. Grayson‘s offense is headed by QB Max Rodgers with Spencer Roberts leading the receiving corps. The rushing attack is explosive. The Blue Devils have big-play potential in Zack Vaughn, Tyler Caudill and Xavier Rodriguez. Clintwood RB Gavan Meade is the Greenwave’s best known rushing threat. QB Dylan Dahley and Chandler and Jacob York — younger brothers of 2010 playmaker Cody Torres — could make things interesting.
Eastside (1-2) at Haysi (1-2)
More brinkmanship from the Spartans last week, as they flirted with a big win over Honaker, which evaded an upset with a field goal. Eastside shares a lot in common with Lee at this point of the season. It’s good to be in it, but far better to win it. RBs Erikk Banks and Cody Lawson fuel the Spartans rushing attack, which will be once again looking to keep the football out of Tigers’ paws for as long as possible. Receivers Austin McClanahan and Dakota Stanley are both big-play threats for Haysi with kicking game scores on their respective resumés.
Twin Springs (2-1) at Northwood (1-2)
The Titans generated a whopping 434 yards total offense in last week’s win over a young Patrick Henry squad. They travel to Saltville favored against the Panthers, who broke their drought with a 26-14 win over Twin Valley. QB Jason Prater, RBs Blake Olinger and Zack Halsey, and WR Matthew Harris lead Northwood. QB Ritchie Morefield, RB Austin Hazlett and prolific WR Jarod Finch have been leading the Twin Springs offense.