Bears, Blue Tornado kick-start SW Virginia playoffs

Pat Kenney • Nov 10, 2017 at 1:00 PM

One of Southwest Virginia’s most intense rivalries resumes tonight when Union takes on Richlands at 7 p.m. at Bullitt Park in Big Stone Gap in the opening round of the VHSL Class 2A football playoffs.

The Bears (10-0) edged the Blue Tornado 16-7 in the third week of the season. And while Richlands (4-6) has struggled at times this season, this tradition-rich program can never be taken lightly.

“Richlands is one of the best teams in the region,” said Union coach Travis Turner. “They are well coached and their kids play hard. People need to remember that they took Graham into overtime.”

Turner has seen improvement from Richlands since the teams’ September meeting.

“Their offensive line is huge and they have come along,” he said. “They’ve moved a linebacker to fullback and he’s a load to deal with.”

The Blue Tornado faces a Bears team that played one of the toughest schedules in Southwest Virginia and still went unbeaten in the regular season despite losing starting quarterback Bailey Turner to a season-ending knee injury.

“The injuries were difficult,” Coach Turner said. “But we have a good bunch of seniors who have led us through the adversity. Zack Qualls has settled in at quarterback and has more command of the offense, and our offensive line has continued to play well.”

And the Bears have Division I prospect James Mitchell, who stunned the Tornado with a spectacular punt return for a touchdown in their regular-season meeting.

“James loves the game of football,” Turner said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him this season.

“Our kids are looking forward to Friday night. It will be a championship-caliber atmosphere.”

On Saturday, Eastside (6-4) hosts Hurley (6-4) at 1 p.m. in a Class 1A playoff opener.

“While Hurley doesn’t have all those backs returning from last year, they do have three outstanding linemen and a pretty good quarterback,” said Spartans coach Jason Hicks. “They are a very physical ballclub.”

After last week’s thrilling 29-28, come-from-behind win over Castlewood that secured the Cumberland District regular-season crown, the Spartans are eager to begin the postseason.

“The kids were over-the-moon excited after beating Castlewood,” Hicks said. “They wanted to win the district and earn a home playoff game. They are confident and feel like we have a chance.

“We’ll have to play well and just want to put ourselves in position to win in the fourth quarter. The key will be having our defense make the stops when we need them.”

Other area VHSL matchups tonight include Castlewood (5-5) at Chilhowie (7-3), Thomas Walker (6-4) at Patrick Henry (8-2), Grayson County (6-4) at Ridgeview (9-1) and J.I. Burton (5-5) at Grundy (7-3). John Battle (6-4) is at Graham (9-1) on Saturday.