By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
What is a little rain to a River.
River Michaels ran for 70 yards and a touchdown and also threw for a score, leading Richlands to a 31-21 win over Graham in a Region 2A West opening round playoff game on a rainy, cold Friday night at Ernie Hicks Stadium/EMATS Field.
Richlands (8-3), which has won five in a row, will host Virginia High next week after the Bearcats surprised Gretna 45-40.
“We would like to play here, anytime we can stay at home in the confines of Ernie Hicks Stadium, that would be great,” Richlands head coach Greg Mance said. “(Graham’s) kids played hard, you hate to see someone lose and Graham has had a great season, and those seniors, they played their hearts out.”
Graham (6-5), which had a three-game winning streak snapped, had four turnovers and also had a field goal and punt blocked.
“I felt like we played the whole first quarter inside our own 5 or 10 yard line,” Graham head coach Mike Williams said. “Field position was awful, they took advantage and got 14 quick points and we were just never able to recover.”
Out of the first six plays in the game, four resulted in turnovers, two for each team, much of which was caused by a steady downpour that fell most of the game. Ironically, neither team could capitalize on those mistakes.
“It was a crazy game to have three back-to-back turnovers,” Richlands senior linebacker Frank Taylor said. “I have played a little bit of football and I have never had that happen or see or be a part of it so that was wild.”
Michaels was able to limit his mistakes after throwing an interception picked off by Graham’s Hunter Cook on their Blues’ second possession of the game.
“I came out here for pregame and I seen it was raining and I got in there and got my mind focused,” Michaels said. “I don’t let it bother me, I knew the ball is going to be slick, I got me a towel and you have just got to hang onto the ball, that is part of football.”
It was the next turnover that put Richlands in front to stay. Ben Brown punted to Graham, and the ball was downed at the 1. Two plays later, Colby Hill fumbled and Cade Mullins recovered for the Blue Tornado. Two plays later, Michaels was able to push his away across from the 1 for the lead. Brown followed with the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
“The line did great, we kind of started off rusty, but we come through it and fought through it until the end there,” Michaels said. “We are glad to get this one and now we are going to move on to next week.”
Graham’s plan was to slow down Colton Staten, who has run for nearly 1,200 yards this season, and did hold him to 59 yards, but Michaels and Richlands’ huge offensive line led Anthony Cordle was able to control the football and keep the ball from the G-Men.
“They gave us a couple of gifts early and we didn’t take advantage of it and gave it right back to them,” Mance said. “We made some plays in the second quarter…I thought River did a great job of getting the ball where it was supposed to go there and really ran well.
“Graham was going to take Colton out here, we knew that, so we knew River was going to have to run the ball well and we were going to have to block their stunts. We had trouble early, but later on, they gave him time to throw the ball and I thought River did a great job of throwing the football.”
Another miscue occurred on the next possession when Graham punter Samuel Stowers lost the handle on a snap at the goal line, rolled to the left, but his attempted kick was blocked by Donny Zheng and recovered in the end zone by Taylor Ratliff to build the lead to 14-0 with 1:49 left in the opening period.
Williams wasn’t looking for excuses for the miscues.
“It was raining for them too, the kids were saying the ball was wet,” Williams said. “That is up to us to keep a dry football on the field so no matter how you dice it, it is our fault.”
Graham was able to drive into Richlands territory on its next possession, but Stowers’ 44-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Kevin Alley. Richlands followed with a 13-play, 58-yard drive, with Brown building the lead to 17-0 on a 24-yard field goal.
That forced the G-Men to play from behind, and lost two quarterbacks, Hill and freshmen Ben Meade, with injuries during the game. Hill did return to throw for 79 yards and a 8-yard touchdown to Charlie Benfield with 18 seconds left to pull Graham within 24-21.
“We got behind 17-0 and then we got within three there,” Williams said. “Both quarterbacks got knocked out, and we put one (Hill) back in there that was limited throwing so when you are behind and you have got to throw and your quarterbacks are hurt, it makes life rough.”
Benfield led all backs with 79 yards, while Dylan Cook was held to 31, but both finished the year with more 1,000 yards on the ground.
“Twenty-five (Cook) and 5 (Benfield), there is something to be said for those two, they are quite the duo back there in their backfield,” Taylor said. “That is a huge part of your game plan coming in, you know they are going to try to hit the outside there and we have been coaching up our ends and linebackers alike to hold down that gap and really improve from the last time we played them.”
Graham got on the board on its final possession of the half, a score set up by a 52-yard kick return by DeQuan Booker. Hill was able to later run to the left sideline, cut back inside and dash 26 yards for the touchdown to narrow the margin to 17-7 at the break.
Richlands wasted no time scoring again when Michaels connected with Brown in a slant pattern and the talented senior outran the G-Men 60 yards for the score.
“That was big play,” Michaels said. “He just turned the jets on as soon as he caught that ball.”
Graham was able to pull within 24-14 to open the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run by Benfield, and pulled within 24-21. The Blues were trying to run out the clock, but another lost fumbles was recovered by Mark Large at the Richlands’ 16. Four plays later, Hill connected with Benfield on fourth down with a 8-yard catch with 18 seconds on the clock.
“We have got to get ready to play, we had two turnovers in the fourth quarter, we had field position set, turned the ball over, we were going to run the clock out, they have got no timeouts, we fumbled the ball,” said Mance, whose Blues finished with 238 total yards to 231 for Graham. “We can’t do that, we self-destructed, this thing should have been put away in the third quarter…
“I am just happy to be moving on, we have to get these things corrected. Graham battled and played hard, but we are just glad to be moving on.”
Graham still had an opportunity with an onside kick, but Zeke Vance picked up the ball, and ran down the left sidelines 62 yards for the game-clinching score.
Richlands had squeaked past Graham 27-26 earlier this season, but Taylor said the Blues, who were eliminated in the first round last year, were focused on the G-Men.
“Last time I don’t think we came out with a fire in our eye and the same kind of intensity that Richlands is used to playing with,” Taylor said. “That was shameful on our part and we realized that and one of our main goals this week was to play our very hardest on every snap.”
While Richlands will face another rematch next week, having beaten Virginia High 32-13 in September, the G-Men continues to search for its first playoff win since 2009.
“It was an honor and a privilege to work with these kids,” Williams said. “It has been a fun three years with them and we will miss them around here.”
— Contact Brian Woodson at email@example.com
At Ernie Hicks Stadium/EMATS Field
Graham…………..........……..0 7 0 14 — 21
Richlands………….......…….14 3 7 7 — 31
RL - River Michaels 1 run (Ben Brown kick) 3:29
RL - Taylor Ratliff recovered punt in end zone (Brown kick) 1:49
RL- Brown 24 field goal 3:24
GR - Colby Hill 26 run (Samuel Stowers kick) 1:01
RL - Brown 60 pass from Michaels (Brown kick) 9:07
GR - Charlie Benfield 1 run (Stowers kick) 7:44
GR - Benfield 8 pass from Hill (Stowers kick) :18
RL - Zeke Vance 62 kick return (Brown kick) :04
First Downs: GR 121, RL 12. Rush-Yards: GR 35-152, RL 38-129. Pass Yards: GR 79, RL 109. Comp-Att-Int: GR 8-14-1, RL 6-11-1. Fumbles-Lost: GR 4-4, RL 3-3. Penalty-Yards: GR 5-47, RL 4-35, Punts-Avg. GR 3-27.3, RL 2-42.5
Rushing: GR Charlie Benfield 13-79, Dylan Cook 8-31, Colby Hill 4-27, DeQuan Booker 3-11, Kyshon Lee 2-5, Ben Meade 7-(-2); River Michaels 24-70, Colton Staten 14-59.
Passing: GR Colby Hill 8-14-1 int-79-1 td; RL River Michaels 6-11-1 int-109-1 td.
Receiving: GR Bryce Farris 1-30, Charlie Benfield 5-29, DeQuan Booker 1-14, Dylan Cook 1-6; RL Ben Brown 1-60, Colton Staten 1-30, Scotty Ball 2-24, Chace Collins 1-8, Zeke Vance 1-3.