By MIKE DAVIS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
It’s been two weeks since Richlands has suited up for a football game, having last survived a 34-27 decision at Tazewell.
That was followed by a much-needed break for a team that has been decimated by injuries.
“We’ve had more injuries this season than all of my 16 years here combined,” Richlands head coach Greg Mance said. “Sooner or later, you’re going to go through it, but we feel like we’re getting healthy at the right time and the team’s improving. With all the injuries, we’ve been able to build some depth.”
Richlands (4-3, 2-0) returns to the gridiron tonight to play host to Abingdon at Ernie Hicks Stadium, looking for their fifth regular season win and third Southwest District win of the season.
The Falcons (3-4, 1-1) enter with a 3-4 record, including wins over Lebanon (14-7), Volunteer (37-12) and Chilhowie (27-18).
“Abingdon is better than their record indicates,” Mance said. “When you look at their roster, they’ve been playing a bunch of sophomores and juniors and a couple freshmen and those guys have seven games under their belt. So they’re no longer sophomores and freshmen and they’re much better.”
Richlands was able to hold off a valiant effort by the Bulldogs, led by Griffin McCauley with 112 yards rushing and 68 by River Michaels. McCauley was pressed into action when Colton Staten was out with an injury.
Through all the injuries, Mance said it’s been difficult to develop continuity with different combinations on the field each week.
“We’ve started three different quarterbacks this year, two different tailbacks, and out of seven weeks we’ve started six different combinations on the offensive line and on defense, it’s the same situation,” Mance said. “We’ve got player missing in the secondary for two weeks, then it’s a linebacker and the next week it’s a defensive end so we’ve had to makeshift and put some kids in there that’s not ready.
“But they’ve done a good job and gotten better as the season goes on and the open week couldn’t have come at a better time for us.”
Richlands, which is looking for its 10th straight Southwest District title, still has games remaining with the Falcons, Lebanon and Grundy.
“Any time you play young kids it’s going to build depth,” Mance said. “These kids have not been going in when you’re up 48-0 and playing mop up duty, but they’re in there in the heat of the game when the game is on the line and there’s no replacement for that (experience).
“We’re excited about that about depth for the playoffs and regular season.”
Mance said the Falcons have improved as the season has progressed, dropping decisions to John Battle (34-20), Gate City (42-21), Happy Valley (28-26) and Virginia High (38-14).
Tyler Arnold threw for 207 yards, and Lukas Hart had seven receptions in the loss last week to the Bearcats.
“They’re athletic at wide receiver with Lukas Hart, Isaac Perrigan and Ashton Bassham. Perrigan is one of the most dynamic players in southwest Virginia and I think he’s going to be a Division I player,” Mance said. “Their quarterback, Arnold is a tremendous baseball player and he makes you miss.
“He scrambles around making time for receivers and they have a good tailback, Jaylen Claridy, that runs the football and they’re very dangerous on offense.”
Richlands, which has lost three regular season games for the first time in recent memory, had played a difficult slate, losing to Union, Bluefield and Lord Botetourt, all of which was originally scheduled to help the Blue Tornado better prepared themselves for postseason play.
“Playing tough games this season has been fun for the fans, but it’s going to make us coaches old and gray before our time,” Mance said. “The types of games we’ve had build character and the kids have to learn to play in those games when they go in the fourth quarter and the score is tied and they don’t panic.
“We’ve had situations we’ve come from behind late in the fourth quarter and answered the bell and that builds the kids’ confidence.”
Richlands, which will have the services of team leaders Staten and Anthony Cordle tonight, and expect to have lineman Dustin Carty as well, is ready to get back on the field and begin its charge toward another SWD title and the postseason.
“The kids understand it’s Game 8 and we can’t afford to slip up,” Mance said. “It’s a district game and if we win we’ll be 3-0, So, I think the kids will come out fired up and ready to play.”