By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
If there was a game in 2011 that announced the possible return to power of the Graham football team, it was the 10-7 win on a cold, rainy night at Fort Chiswell.
Graham had to win that game to make the playoffs after a year’s hiatus and they did just that with solid defense, ball security and a touchdown pass to win it late in the fourth quarter.
“The way the season has unfolded for both teams it is huge stakes,” Graham head coach Mike Williams said. “Last year’s game we knew going in the winner was going to the playoffs and loser was going to sit at home and that is exactly how it worked out.”
Both of these teams are destined for the postseason this year, with G-Men (6-2, 2-1) ranked fourth in power points in West Section, Division 2, while the Pioneers (7-1, 3-0) sit on top of those rankings.
There is also the possibility of a Mountain Empire District championship, especially if Fort Chiswell wins in tonight’s homecoming game at Mitchell Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m.
“This year’s game, it is a pretty safe bet to say the winner is going to be district champions and the number one seed in the West and loser isn’t,” Williams said. “It is pretty high stakes again, Chiswell is always tough to play and the stakes are a little higher this year than last year.
“We are certainly glad that last year went our way, but we are certainly aware that they are not going to forget how that went and we will be ready for the game Friday.”
Graham was able to follow up a 45-42 win over Galax with a 40-0 decision last week against outmanned Bland County. The G-Men were able to regroup from a lost fumble on the opening kickoff to score 30 points in the opening quarter.
That was Graham’s lone turnover, while forcing four from the Bears, and getting valuable varsity experience for many of the younger G-Men.
“I didn’t like the way we came out of the gate, but we recovered well from that and got on them often and early as we talked about,” Williams said. “That gave our other kids an opportunity to play which has been pretty scarce this season for those kids so I am glad it worked out the way it did...
“I was just real glad that everybody got on the field. It is good for those kids to get a little varsity experience because a lot of the kids that played will be the ones we rely heavily on next year.”
While Graham was finishing off the Bears, the Pioneers were beating Grayson County 42-21, the same team that defeated the G-Men 36-17. Both teams shot down Galax in shootouts, with Graham winning 45-42 and the Pioneers up by a point, 37-36.
Fort Chiswell, whose lone loss was a 28-7 decision to George Wythe, have scored at 37 points in their last five games, and reached at least 42 in four of those.
“I like to keep the score low for defensive purposes, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Williams said. “The score of the Galax game sort of surprised me, but we just want to come out on top with a win rather that is a high-scoring game or low-scoring game.”
The top player for Fort Chiswell is also one of the biggest, 6-foot-6, 295-pound junior Coleman Thomas, an offensive lineman and linebacker, who has reportedly already received offers from West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Virginia.
“Coleman Thomas is a year bigger and stronger,” said Williams, who played at Emory & Henry, which is where Thomas’ father, Richie, played as well. “He is their anchor on the offensive line and he is a big body in there at middle linebacker.”
He’s not all. Daniel Hamm is another in a long line of talented tailbacks that the G-Men have faced this season, with Williams comparing him in style to Princeton’s Tahj Sho-Johnson, Marion’s Ethan Richardson and Montel Leggett from Bluefield.
Quarterback Brett Mabry comes from a family of signal-callers. His brother, Cory, is the starting quarterback at Bluefield College.
“It just seems like week after week we just play a phenomenal tailback...,” Williams said. “It is hard to differentiate one from another because they are all good in different ways.
“The quarterback probably throws a little better than the one last year so I think they have improved there and is probably a better runner so they probably made an upgrade there.”
Williams credited Graham’s physical hard-hitting effort for the G-Men’s winning effort last year over the Pioneers, and expects the same tonight. Cody Hatfield leads the G-Men with 85 tackles, while Hunter Cook has 83, including six for negative yards.
“I think we have got to really get after them on defense,” he said. “I was watching last year’s film and we really did a good job of being tenacious on defense up front, got off the ball real well, our linebackers were plugging holes, we were standing the ballcarriers up and tackling them backwards.
“We were just physical and I think that is probably why we won the game. If we can duplicate that defensive effort we will be in pretty good shape.”
Michael Thompson leads Graham with 11 stops for loss and three sacks, and Charlie Benfield has four interceptions.
“At this stage in the season and it is true for them too, there is not a whole lot you haven’t seen,” Williams said. “You have faced most any kind of defense you are going to face and you have probably faced most any offense.”
Graham has been led all season by the senior duo of Hatfield (761 yards, 5 td rush, 11-214, 1 td catch) and Spencer Sheets (710, 6 td pass, 491, 8 td rush), along with Thompson (308 rush), Benfield (15-125, 1 td catch) and Mark Large (9-149 catch).
Much like the physical style of defense, Williams wants his offense to be free of turnovers and avoid the penalties that hurt G-Men early in the season.
“Turnovers are big,” he said. “We need to take care of the football and any time we take care of the football and eliminate any kind of mental penalties, if we will just execute the offense the yards and points will accumulate.”
It is homecoming night at Graham, and the G-Men would like to make a good time for their fans and alumni, but Williams isn’t too concerned about kings and queens, just wins.
“I don’t get much into that kind of stuff, but I am sure the kids do and I am sure I did when I was a kid,” Williams said. “A lot of the alums will probably get into that, but from our position, we are going to coach and play football.
“It is a challenge because homecoming week offers a lot more distractions than normal which can, if you allow it, pull your team away from the focus point of the game Friday night.
“We are going to stay on the kids hard to keep their focus this week and not get pulled in various directions that will distract from the game Friday.”
Do that and execute the game plan and perhaps the G-Men can have as much fun in this one as they did last year on a rainy night at Fort Chiswell.
“Last year’s game was a lot of fun with a lot at stake,” Williams said, “and I think this one will unfold the same way.”
—Contact Brian Woodson