By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
It has become an annual tradition for Richlands and Cave Spring to meet in the Region IV playoffs.
This year is no different, except this time it’s in the regional semifinals, with the winner playing either Marion or Tunstall for the Region IV title and a berth in the Division 3 state semifinals the following week.
Cave Spring (6-5), winners of two of the last three Region IV titles, will visit Richlands (9-1) tonight, with the kickoff at Ernie Hicks Stadium slated for 7:30 p.m.
“We know we have a really good team coming in here,” said Richlands head coach Greg Mance, whose Blues lost 35-21 to Cave Spring last November in the regional title game. “We will have to have our ‘A’ game to come out of here with a victory...
“It is just really nice to play at home, I think we play much better here than we do on the road.”
Mance is always Lou Holtz-like in his praise of the opposition, and for good reason with the Knights, who are 6-5, but all five losses have come against Roanoke Valley competition. Among the wins is a 17-14 decision at Pulaski County. Richlands also played the Cougars and lost 28-17.
Cave Spring also has a 37-24 win over Division 4 Christiansburg, and close losses to Salem (28-21) and Hidden Valley (21-12).
“They play quality competition...,” Mance said. “They are a very sound football team. They have got seven starters back on defense from last year’s region championship team. Offensively I think they only have three starters back, but those guys are really, really good football players.”
Cave Spring, which sandwiched a 2010 loss to Richlands between a pair of wins in ‘09 and ‘11, was led last season by graduated Sam Wright, who ran for 303 yards and five touchdowns.
“We just got whipped,” Mance said. “The offensive and defensive lines just got whipped and they couldn’t sustain blocks and we lost the line of scrimmage on defense and that was the key to the game.”
The Blue Tornado has been hampered by injuries, having lost quarterback Gray Baker and lineman Zach Franklin for the season, and will be without standout receiver/defensive back A.J. Johnson, who was ejected from the Blues’ 65-33 win two weeks ago against Tazewell.
Josh Dowd and Chase Ray will be expected to step up on both sides of the ball in Johnson’s absence, but Mance said the Blues have been doing that all season.
“Without (A.J.) it is going to be a lot tougher, but these kids have been resilient all year, they have stepped up,” Mance said. “The kids have played over their heads, they have played extremely well when they have been thrown in the fire and that is what we are expecting on Friday night.”
Ben Brown has stepped into Baker’s shoes since returning from his own injury woes, and has performed well. He’ll be assisted by Colton Staten (1,563 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Todd McGlothlin (30 receptions, 445 yards, 6 td).
Jordan Bryant paces Cave Spring — which is allowing 17.2 points per game —on defense with 112 1/2 tackles, while Matt Reiter had 66. The Knights have four players with at least 10 tackles for loss, including 15 apiece by Bryant and Reiter.
The most points allowed in a game this season by Cave Spring is 28.
“They play great defense and that is what sticks out,” Mance said. “If you look at their scores nobody gets a lot of points on them...”
The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Bryant is also a standout tight end, who has snared 32 receptions for 380 yards and five touchdowns this season.
“He is just a tremendous tight end and a tremendous linebacker,” said Mance, whose Blue are scoring 36.2 points a game. “I don’t know where he is going to school, but I can guarantee you he is going to play college football. He is a football player.”
Cave Spring, which scores 23.9 points a game, is led on offense by Connor Baker, who has thrown for 1,855 yards and 18 touchdowns. His favorite targets are Jack Woody (47-753, 9 td), John Evans (45-571, 4 td) and Bryant (32-380, 5 td).
Baker and James Jackson (490 yards) are the leaders on the ground, running behind 6-6, 303-pound Dylan Brucki, who has received an offer from Liberty. Daniel Seymour has made 11 field goals for the Knights.
Richlands will counter with linemen Sam Lawson (44 tackles, 6 tackles for loss), Eric Johnson (61 tkls, 9 tfl, 3 sacks) and McGlothlin (74 tkls, 17 tfl, 14 sacks, 3 forced fumbles), along with linebacker Frank Taylor, who leads the Blues with 113 tackles, 16 stops for loss and six sacks.
A.J. Johnson will also be missed in the secondary, where he has 17 pass breakups and five interceptions. The Blues have allowed 14.8 points a game, but face a big challenge in the Knights.
Cave Spring has struggled with teams who play power football against them, something the Bluees will try to do.
“We are hoping to come out and execute and play extremely well,” Mance said. “We have got a couple of injuries that have really made it tough, but our kids have bounced back and found a way to win through all the controversy and through all the injuries we have had to overcome this year.”
Richlands, which defeated Cave Spring 36-23 in 2010 on its way to the state championship game, had last week off to prepare for the Knights.
It’s now time to put that plan into action.
“We have got to move the ball, we have got to be able to run the football because they are so fast and they do such a great job of getting in throwing lanes,” Mance said. “You are not going to pass the ball 35 times against them.
“We have got to be able to run the football, we have got to win the time of possession and the third thing is we have got to win the turnover battle. Special teams are going to make a big contribution here because in the games we have played, field position is going to be crucial.”
—Contact Brian Woodson