By MIKE DAVIS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
After putting six non-district games in their rearview mirror, Richlands’ Southwest District title defense begins tonight against Marion.
The Blue Tornado plays host to the Scarlet Hurricane on homecoming night looking to begin the run to their ninth consecutive SWD crown.
“I think it’s going to be the toughest district challenge we’ll face,” Richlands head coach Greg Mance said. “If you look at the preseason polls, they were picked to finish second and they have a lot of good athletes. Their defensive ends are big and they’re very quick.
“On defense, they play a 3-4 like us and on offense they mirror us. They run the spread, they run trips, they’ll use a tight end, unbalanced, they run some option and they give you a little mix. Coach (Joey) Carroll does a good job and they’re well coached.”
The Tornado has improved since their loss three weeks ago with consecutive wins against Patrick County and Honaker, and several players that have been injured have returned to full action.
“We’re banged up pretty good right now,” Mance said. “We’ve got bruised ribs, ankles, knees and when you play a tough schedule you’re going to get banged up and that builds depth. Honaker’s got a good ball team and our kids played extremely well.”
Richlands win last Friday night was sparked by stellar offensive play and a stubborn defense that had their backs against the wall inside the 5-yard line twice and held Honaker from scoring.
“A mark of a good football team is when the other team gets down in the red zone can you keep them from scoring,’ Mance said. “Our kids did it twice, so, we feel good about our defense and our development there is getting better each week.”
Offensively, quarterback Gray Baker is still under center and putting chart topping numbers in the books, including 182 yards passing on seven completions.
“What can you say about Gray Baker,” Mance said. “He’s come into his own and he understands the offense now. He’s checking down and calling audibles and the first touchdown to A.J. against Honaker was an audible.
“He saw the slant open up after the linebacker came up and he checked us and that’s what you’re looking for in a quarterback. He’s a leader and he’s getting better each week and getting the play where it needs to go. I’d say he’s over 1,000 yards and his completion percentage has to be 70 percent and we’ll take that all day.”
All of the catches went to senior receiver A.J. Johnson, who consequently finished with 182 yards and three of Baker’s touchdowns.
“A.J. has grown up and he’s one of the hardest workers in practice and he’s always picking kids up and on game night, he’s got that swagger,” Mance said. “I just don’t know if you can cover him one-on-one and now Todd (McGlothlin) is coming around after battling the injury bug and his endurance is improving and he works so hard on defense.”
“If Todd emerges the way we think he will, it’s going to be hard for defenses to cover with two good receivers and a good running back.”
Colton Staten led the Tornado rushing game with 213 yards on 25 carries with one touchdown.
Defensively, the Tornado stopped Honaker from making a case offensively with a 35-0 shutout. The Richlands defense held potent Honaker from getting over 100 yards and kept Ty Hall from completing a pass in the first half.
“I would’ve never thought we would’ve dominated the total yardage that we did (against Honaker),” Mance said. “We had 450 and they had over 90 and 30 of that was on the last drive (of the ball game) and that shows you how well our kids played.”
The ‘Canes have lost back to back weeks by close scores including a 17-14 loss to George Wythe Friday night. The week before they fell to Graham 21-20.
“Marion is big up front and they’ve got us worried,” Mance said. “They’re going to be tough, Wytheville beat them by three and Graham was down two scores and had to come back and ended up beating them by one.
“Graham returned a touchdown to set that game up, we watched the tape and Marion really outplayed them, they were getting up and down the field and the interception return changed the outcome of the game.”
“Marion is very capable of beating Richlands High School and the kids have to understand that and I know the coaches understand that after watching the tape.”
Ethan Richardson continues to be a threat for Marion on the ground running for 113 yards on 16 attempts with two touchdowns against George Wythe. The Hurricanes ran the ball 32 times as a team and gained 151 yards.
“Marion is getting healthy at the right time of the year and they should get everyone back and that’s going to be a challenge for us,” Mance said. “They can do so many things offensively like spreading you out and they have the leading rusher in the district with over 1,000 yards in six games and that says a lot about the talent they have.
Then, they have athletes around him. Defensively, they fly around. It’s going to be a heckuva ball game.”
Game time kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.