And then there were three.
After the first week of the VHSL’s new sectional playoffs, only three Region D teams survive and advance.
Castlewood (8-3) gets things started tonight when it travels to face top-seeded Galax (11-0) for a 7 p.m. kickoff in the second round of the West Section, Division 1 playoffs.
Elsewhere in the bracket, J.I. Burton (9-2) travels to Honaker (9-2) for a 1 p.m. kickoff on Saturday while Clintwood (9-2) faces surprising Chilhowie (6-5) in a 2 p.m. kickoff at Ralph Cummins Stadium.
Under the previous system, there would be four Region D teams remaining in the second week of the playoffs: two Division 1 and two Division 2. Now we have one fewer and all three are Division 1 squads.
Furthermore, this is the second week of a five-game — as opposed to four-game — playoff. The road to the finals certainly looks longer and more treacherous.
“I just think this is an unusual year in what used to be the old Region D,” said Clintwood coach Rick Mullins. “I’d say next year we’ll see more Division 2 teams advancing to the next round.”
One coach you won’t hear denigrating the new system is Honaker’s Doug Hubbard, whose Tigers were dropped down to Division 1 this year.
“No system is perfect. I thought a more unjust system was last year when we were a school with 390 kids playing schools with 600 and 700 kids,” Hubbard said.
“I remember when we were 9-1 and didn’t make the playoffs because we blew a game in the last minute to Haysi. Under this system, that team would’ve gone to the playoffs.”
No complaints from Castlewood, either. The Blue Devils are advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the late 1980s. Facing the top Group A squad in the Associated Press rankings is a welcome challenge.
“I don’t think our kids are intimidated by them. We’ve taken this week just like we have every other,” said Castlewood coach David Scammell.
Loaded with many of the same athletes that led the Maroons to last year’s Group A, Division 1 basketball title, Galax boasts an offense as explosive as nitroglycerine.
The Maroons run a mixture of offset I and one-back offenses that utilizes a lot of play-action passes. Running backs Jordan Vaughn (114-1,139 yards, 17 TDs) and Steven Peoples (68-748, 11 TDs) lead the rushing attack. Quarterback Austin Pack has passed for 993 yards and 13 scores. Deion George (25-561, 11 TDs) isn’t the only capable receiver in the stable, but when they throw it long he’s usually the one that goes out and gets it.
“We’re going to put in a few wrinkles on defense this week to try to get some better match ups,” Scammell said. “I think we can match up well with them using Aaron Kennedy and Reid Edmonds, Blake Sloce and Addison Rasnick. We’ll be moving some people around to put them in position to make some plays.”
Last week, J.I. Burton beat Haysi 46-28 in a shootout that was much closer than the final score indicated. That was one way to skin the cat. These are Tigers of a different stripe.
“I think teams match up differently. I certainly expect them to take some things away from us. But we kind of are who we are,” said Burton coach Jimbo Adams. “If we need to throw it 25 or 30 times, we’ll do it. We have a capable quarterback and receivers. If people want to play us soft, we’ve got three capable running backs as well.”
Last week, quarterback Tanner Crowder passed for 213 yards and four touchdowns. Slotbacks Riley Maggard and Colby Dean and running back Malik Miles combined for 317 yards rushing.
Running back Jared Honaker has rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 19 touchdowns for the Tigers. Quarteback Jeremiah Dye has passed for 1,100 yards and 20 scores, with tight end Jeremiah Dye leading the receivers.
Linebackers Tyler Bailey and Jon Ritchey anchor Honaker’s bread-and-butter split-front four defense.
“Usually at this point of the year we’re seeing Powell Valley or Gate City,” said Hubbard. “We know we’re playing a good football team. But we’re playing a school closer to our size. We feel good about our chances.”
Clintwood might feel even better about its chances of hosting a third consecutive playoff game — which could happen if Radford knocks off George Wythe Friday — but for 11th-seeded Chilhowie’s 39-38 win over Rural Retreat last week after trailing 31-0 at the half.
“That tells me there’s no quit in them, for sure,” said Clintwood coach Rick Mullins.
The Greenwave’s stingy defense will keep a close eye on Warriors tailback Brett Johnson, who rushed for 194 yards and five scores in last week’s stunner.
“We’ve got to know where he is at all times. They move him around a lot and he’s the one they want to get the ball to,” Mullins said.
While not averse to throwing the football, Clintwood has excelled at sustaining solid drives on the legs of fullback Austin Dotson and tailback Gavan Meade behind a powerful offensive front. Monopolizing time of possession is one way of limiting comeback opportunities.