Three years ago when the VHSL designated Group A as the guinea pig for a new statewide football playoff format, one of the most striking features of the new system was far-flung first round matchups.
Freshly-minted Union was the poster child for this brave new world, traveling all the way to Stuart’s Draft for its first round playoff debut.
This year, athletic directors at local 1A West and 2A West programs stand to spend a lot less on gas.
“It seems like we’re playing a district tournament to start the playoffs,” observed Gate City coach Bill Houseright, whose seventh-seeded Blue Devils (6-4) play John Battle (6-4) in tonight’s 2A opener at Legion Field.
The No. 2 Bears (8-2) will entertain No. 15 Lee High (5-5) at Bullitt Park tonight in another Mountain District replay. The winner of that game will advance to face either the Blue Devils or the Trojans next week.
“It’s funny the way things work out,” said Union coach Travis Turner. “At least it makes it easier on the coaches, not having to worry about travel and food and all that.”
Lee High coach Terry Martin doesn’t care where he has to go. The Generals haven’t been in the playoffs since 1998.
“We’re all excited about it. We’ve won five games and we’d like to win five more. I told our kids, if we can cut the turnovers and get on a roll, it’s possible. Don’t think for a minute it’s not,” Martin said.
History confirms Martin’s optimism. The year before it was folded into Lee High, Jonesville entered the playoffs with a 5-5 record and won a Division 1 state championship. The next year Tom Turner — Travis Turner’s father — did likewise with a 5-5 Appalachia squad.
This is the Bears’ third straight foray into the playoffs but they can’t count on a wide-eyed debut from Lee. It took a 27-yard scoring run from RB Mekyah Davis with less than two minutes remaining to lift Union to a 27-23 win the last time the two met.
Lee will vie to control time of possession with RBs Cody Hanes and Ray Avery. The Bears take a like-minded approach with RBs Davis, Jake McCray and Brandon Hubbard. The Gens and Union both have solid throwing QBs in Houston Sage and Tanner Hall, respectively. It could be an interesting script to watch unfold.
The Blue Devils face a dangerous wounded rival, having upended the Trojans 32-20 during the regular season. Battle coach Steve Wright has proven his stripes but the 2012 dream season has given way to tough breaks. Trojans big-play manufacturer Carter Harlow was injured in last week’s loss at Union. His playing status is uncertain. Another wrinkle: Gate City game-changer Caleb Herron, who sat out the first meeting, might be good for limited snaps.
Opening round deja vu isn’t confined to the 2A bracket. In 1A West, No. 12 J.I. Burton (6-4) travels to Ralph Cummins Stadium for a Saturday afternoon Cumberland District rematch with No. 5 Clintwood (8-2), the last of Norton’s most ancient rivals.
Greenwave QB Dalton Dahley has passed for 1,522 yards and 23 touchdowns. RB Dakota Dahley has rushed for 1,023 yards and 10 scores. Clintwood prevailed 34-13 in the last meeting.
The Raiders have been developing talented defensive linemen as a counterweight, but the Jolly Green Giants are hard to handle. Burton coach Jimbo not only accepts the role of underdog. He embraces it.
“One of our captains, J.W. Horton, said it best. He said he wouldn’t mind to have another road trip, but it’s nice to get another shot at Clintwood, too,” said Adams, whose offense is led by QB Tra Adams, slotbacks Tyler Justiniano and Kelly Thompson and WR Cobye Robbins.
No. 16 Eastside (5-5) dodged a regular season rematch but walked into a revenge scenario. Last year, the Spartans beat Haysi 20-13 in Coeburn. The No. 1 Tigers (10-0) are the hottest team in all of 1A West and highly motivated to bring home a shiny hunk of state championship brass before their merger with Clintwood.
Eastside QB Caleb Riner has passed for 2,073 yards, spreading the tosses among Kobe Lawson, Ben Yates, Justin Banks and J.D. Slone. Haysi RB Jeffrey Bowen has rushed for 1,924 yards. If the Spartans can find a way to fence him in, Tigers coach James Colley can always unleash QB Jalen Sykes, who has passed for 1,409 yards.
“A No. 16 has never beaten a No. 1. There’s always an opportunity. That’s why they play the playoffs,” said Eastside coach Matt Hamilton.
There is some novelty afoot. In other games requiring your immediate attention: No. 14 Bath County (5-5) travels to No. 3 Honaker (9-1) for a meeting of 1A unfamiliars. In 2A, Virginia High (5-5) travels to Gretna (7-3). Incredible irony: in 2009 the Bearcats created a job opening for current Hawks head coach Kevin Saunders when they hired away Gretna’s Chris Thurman — who, of course, no longer coaches Virginia High’s football team.