By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
A 12 vs. 5 matchup in the NCAA Tournament is usually nothing more than two evenly-matched teams separated by a number.
Greg Mance can relate.
“I think Graham right now is playing well, they beat a very, very good Fort Chiswell team handily, they beat Narrows handily,” said Mance, in his 17th season as the head coach at Richlands. “They are getting hot at the right time and we feel like they are a top 5 team in Division 2 and we feel like we are a top 5 team in Division 2.
“This is basically, for us looking at it, it is probably a round 3 matchup in week one.”
While the No. 5 Blue Tornado (7-3) hasn’t lost to 12th seeded Graham (6-4) since the G-Men snapped Richlands’ 33-game regular season win streak in 2007, the Blues barely squeaked past the G-Men 27-26 earlier this season.
Now they have to do it again tonight in Richlands in the Group 2A West playoffs, with the winner earning a date next week with Gretna or Virginia High. The loser pulls out the basketballs. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m.
“The kids respect each other, I know our kids respect them and they know it is going to be a 48-minute battle,” Mance said. “It has going to be a hard-nosed hitting game and the team that makes the least amount of mistakes will have a great opportunity to win.”
Mance earned his 150th win at Richlands last Friday in a 56-6 win over Grundy.
“It is a credit to the former players, we have just been blessed here at Richlands,” Mance said. “We have had some really good football players over the last 15 years, we are just very blessed, just some great athletes have been through here, and we have great assistant coaches.
“The 150 wins goes to the head coach, but it is a credit to all those people who have played here and it is a credit to the assistant coaches also.”
Both teams enter on a roll, with the Blue Tornado winning four straight, while the G-Men have won three in a row, including an eye-opening decision at previously unbeaten Fort Chiswell.
“We really thought in the playoff system 1 through 16 you don’t have a really great chance to play somebody you have already played, but it is what it is,” Mance said. “You have go with the plate they put in front of you and I know the kids are excited about the challenge and it is always a great rivalry game.
“It will be a big crowd here, a great atmosphere and whoever wins will have a good chance of moving on.”
Richlands survived in September against Graham, taking advantage of two turnovers and a pair of missed two-point conversions, going up for good on a 1-yard plunge by River Michaels with 4:38 to play.
“It is going to come to the fourth quarter and it will come down to turnovers and big plays,” Mance said. “I think last time we didn’t have a turnover and they had two and that was the difference in the game. They went for a two-point conversion early in the game on a trick play and it came back to be a difference in the game.
“Graham is well coached, they are going to play their hearts out, they have got a bunch of seniors. They have a very, very good football players over there.”
So does Richlands, led by Colton Staten, who had 174 yards in the last meeting with Graham, and has 1,113 and 10 scores in just seven games, having been hampered by ankle and shoulder injuries this season. River Michaels will have to make quick decisions against the attacking G-Men, having thrown for 1,216 yards and 10 scores, and has run for another 14 touchdowns.
Ben Brown is a favorite target, and is also a talented defensive back and punter, having set a school record, averaging 39.6 yards per kick this year.
“He is just one of those kids, he falls in the old family true, just a great athlete, a smart kid,” Mance said. “We are blessed to have Benny because Benny is one of those kids, when you are around Benny Brown it makes you a better person.”
Mance has definitely noticed the improvement on defense for Graham, which has switched schemes and personnel since a lopsided loss to Galax.
“The big thing on Graham from the first time we saw them from watching them on tape is they have really improved on defense,” Mance said. “They changed their personnel, got a little bit more athletic and (defensive coordinator) Coach (Tony) Palmer has done a great job.
“They have kind of gone back to the old Graham style, they are stunting now a lot more than they used to so that presents a challenge right there because they are so athletic and so strong.”
Richlands will also be challenged on defense, with Graham boasting two backs with nearly 2,000 yards, quarterback Colby Hill, who threw for three touchdowns to a trio of receivers in the last meeting, is healthy and ample protection is provided by Chase Asbury and Daelan Caffee.
Samuel Stowers can match up with Brown as talented contributors in the kicking game.
“We are excited about the challenge and it is going to be a great atmosphere and that is the way a playoff game should be,” Mance said. “We don’t match up good against Graham, their strength is kind of our weakness.
“They run right at you and then play-action pass and we have had a little trouble with that this year with Lord Botetourt and Bluefield. The last time it came down to the end and I am sure it will here tonight.”
Richlands has been hampered by injuries all season, including to Staten, Michaels, Anthony Cordle and could be without offensive lineman Matthew Ball tonight, but the Blues have persevered despite losses to quality teams like Union, Lord Botetourt and Bluefield.
“It is just something has happened every Friday, it is a tribute to these kids to go 7-3 with the amount of injuries that we have gone through this year and the tough schedule we have played,” Mance said. “We are getting hot at the right time and hopefully it will show on Friday night because we really need to play well to have a chance to beat Graham.”
—Contact Brian Woodson