“Undefeated since 1941” is the logo on T-shirts printed by Bluefield College.
It’s time to put that claim to the test.
“Finally,” Bluefield College head football coach Mike Gravier said. “It seems like it’s been a long time, it’s been two years for me.”
More than two years. Gravier was hired on July 23, 2010, and will lead the Rams into its first game in 71 years on Saturday, Aug. 25, when the University of Pikeville visits Mitchell Stadium.
It has been a long wait, and no one shares in the anticipation of that first game more than Gravier, who was also part of developing a new program at Malone University in Ohio.
“We will all have goosebumps, some of us may cry, it will definitely be an emotional time,” Gravier said. “The kids, the coaches, the administration, faculty, everybody who has invested into getting this thing started, it is almost like having a baby. You have waited all this time.”
The wait is over.
A football team needs football players. They’ll arrive in bulk today, nearly 90 of them, including 22 returnees and about 68 newcomers, most of whom will be freshmen, predominantly from Virginia, Florida and Georgia.
“We really feel good about the kids we have got coming in,” Gravier said. “We have got a great group of freshmen coming in and the guys that are left from last year have been through a lot and sacrificed a lot so we feel good about their character and their development.
“We are very excited about the start of this season.”
Today will be spent on physicals, equipment and getting checked into dorm rooms. Football will begin — and lots of it — on Saturday morning with testing, followed by meetings and the first official practice at Mitchell Stadium at 4 p.m.
The team will not use the facilities at Pocahontas High School, which had been the plan when first purchased two years ago.
“We are not using it at all, we made the decision bringing in 90 players, that is 20 more than we had last year, we just didn’t think that facility could handle that many people,” Gravier said. “The folks in student development were gracious enough to let our guys move into their dorm rooms early and the cafeteria people are thrilled because they don’t have to cart food back and forth to Pocahontas.”
Unlike the NCAA which limits the number of two-a-days practices, the NAIA has no such rules. Hence, the Rams will often be out on the field twice a day through Aug. 18 when the rest of the students arrive on campus.
“We will have a lot of position meetings and team meetings and those kind of things between practices, but they will be sleeping, eating, breathing football,” Gravier said. “It is a long, long day for them and that is where some of the young guys struggle, just staying focused.
“You add in all the football intensity for two weeks, and then you add in some of the kids are away from home for the first time, they are in a strange place, there is a lot of things compounding some of their development.”
With so many young faces just a few months out of high school, Gravier and his coaching staff of nine — including offensive line coach Mike Compton and defensive coordinator Stacey Hairston — will also be playing the role of dad.
The rest of the staff includes local product Mike Henry, along with part-timers getting small stipends from as far away as California, Arizona and Florida, many of whom are trying to enhance their resumes with experience.
“We definitely take that seriously because there is some counseling going on, there is giving a shoulder to cry on sometimes when they get homesick,” Gravier said. “As coaches and the guys that I hire, that is important to me that they aren’t just tunnel vision, ‘football, football, football, we want to win.’
“Developing these guys into young men is important, helping them academically and we will do a better job of that than we did last year because we understand what it takes to be successful.”
Gravier brought in 70 players last fall for a club season, but only 22 were still on the team for various reasons in the spring. Playing real games in less than three weeks should help with retention.
“I really think it will, don’t get me wrong, our guys did a great job last year, they prepared themselves like there were games every single practice and as coaches we pushed that,” Gravier said. “I didn’t feel at any point we had a lull last year, but there is a little bit more sense of urgency this year...
“We have got to use every second we have got.”
Among those expected to be key contributors for Bluefield is quarterback Terrance Mazon, a product of Galax, who played well for the Rams in scrimmages last fall. Among his competitors will be Cory Mabry from nearby Fort Chiswell.
“Terrance had a great spring, he is really starting to understand our offense,” said Gravier, whose Rams will have intrasquad scrimmages on Aug. 11 and 18. “He will definitely be the guy coming in, but again at every position there will be competition.”
Lots of it. The staff has some idea who will play well and perhaps even start. Among the candidates are local products R.J. Buford and C.J. Manns (Bluefield), Joel Calfee and David Keen (PikeView), Dylan Kidd (Bland County), Lamont Edwards and Keith Dunn (Graham) and Kyle Sheets (Tazewell).
All could play roles since a football team needs depth. Getting that chance to play could come from hard work in the fall or simply the ability to pick up the system being thrown at them.
“When you are starting a program and especially at the small college level, our depth is not where we need it to be at,...” Gravier said. “We feel really good about our front-line players...Depth is always an issue at this level, but with all freshmen it is even more so.”
Gravier has met and traveled much in years in preparation for the upcoming season and feels a sense of excitement around the program.
“We have had a couple of meetings the past couple of weeks and people are really excited about getting things going,” Gravier said. “People in the community that bump into me, they say ‘We are looking forward to getting to some games.’ I really think there is going to be a lot of enthusiasm.”
What awaits Bluefield is a schedule full of good teams, part of being in the Mid-South Conference, which had seven clubs with at least six wins last season, including perennial power Georgetown, which reached the NAIA national semifinals.
Guess which team awaits Bluefield in week 2 of the season?
“This conference is not an easy conference, every year there are at least two teams from this conference going into the national playoffs and typically there are three or four that are ranked in the top 25,” Gravier said. “We are going to be facing three to five ranked opponents during the year.
“The second game of the year is Georgetown and they got beat in the semifinals, they are always good.”
The first season for any new football program promises excitement, but also growing pains. Gravier isn’t thinking of a win total in terms of a goal, the Rams simply want to compete every chance they get to play.
“That is the way we are going to prepare and honestly we are not going to make excuses if we don’t,” Gravier said. “You will never hear any of our coaches say we are a new program, we are all young kids.
“We are going to prepare and fight every single week. Win or lose our opponents are going to know we are in a battle.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
Football returns at Bluefield College
“Undefeated since 1941” is the logo on T-shirts printed by Bluefield College.
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