By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
RICHLANDS, Va. —
Most teams would take a 9-2 record and be happy.
Most teams aren’t Richlands.
A 9-2 mark last season for the Blue Tornado meant the end of a long regular season win streak, and was also the first time Richlands hadn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs in nearly a decade.
That followed a 11-1 mark in 2011, but that team lost in the postseason, one game short of the Region IV championship game.
Frank Taylor knows that just isn’t Richlands football.
“Coach (Greg) Mance says 9-2 is good for some schools, and great for others, but for us it is not good enough,” Taylor said. “We can do better and that is what we are looking to do this year is to be better than that and be undefeated.”
Richlands will open the 2013 season on Friday by hosting Gate City. That will begin Taylor’s senior campaign with the Blue Tornado, who will drop from Group AA, Division 3 this year to Group A and Division 2.
“I am super excited, being my last year, there is just more urgency and intensity,” Taylor said. “I got my guys together, and we are looking to kind of rebound from prior years, trying to get back to the way the Blues used to play football and play hard.
“Dropping and changing classes, we look to play with the same intensity and losing is not an option.”
The 6-1, 200 pound Taylor led the Blues in tackles last season from his linebacker position, and is looking to do even better in 2013.
“It is hard to do that when you lead the team in tackles and I was supposed to do that and I would like to do that again and maybe out-do myself,” Taylor said. “I think I had 114 last year, I would like to out-do that to some extent and maybe play some more games and get more opportunities.”
He will also move into the backfield and line up in front of Colton Staten as a fullback in the Blue Tornado’s high-octane attack. That move will allow Richlands to play more out of the “I” rather and the spread formation, and get back to playing the physical brand of football that Richlands prefers.
“I used to play fullback some in JV and eighth grade, I had a lot of success with that,” Taylor said. “We need a little spark off the offense, smash-mouth football so I would like to get in there and do that and score some touchdowns and maybe add to my stats a little bit.”
His primary purpose will be to block for Staten, who ran for more than 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
“I love blocking for him, I have blocked for him in the past years, me and him kind of have a buddy system,” Taylor said. “He blocks for me and I block for him and we take care of business and get it done.”
His other task will be to protect quarterback Gray Baker, who threw for nearly 1,500 yards last season before having surgery for a knee injury. He is back, have recuperated the knee, while also fighting through the death of his father last month.
“Gray is the toughest guy I have probably ever seen emotionally and physically too with his injury with his knee,” Taylor said. “He has bounced back from both of those unbelievable and he has improved so much from last year when he got hurt, almost without even trying.
“He is just a natural and I look for him to do just great, he knows the offense and we will have a good year.”
While Richlands has tweaked its offense will more plays from the “I” formation, the defense will be much the same.
“It will be a little odd, but we have got guys that we grew up running the ‘I’ so we are not too alienated from that,” Taylor said. “We are used to that, the spread, of course, we have gotten to know that in varsity, so either way, I think we should be pretty comfortable with what we are running.
“Our defense is still about the same, we tweaked it up some, we might have a little bit of a different look, but I think it will work.”
One of the leaders for the Blue Tornado, Taylor and the Richlands seniors are expecting a big season ahead.
“The biggest challenge is going to be staying healthy and being mentally tough when we get tired, we just have to stay strong and do what we are taught and execute,” Taylor said. “We have got a sense of urgency, these seniors, we have been through a lot, but we are here to make a statement because last year we got beat and not take anything for granted this year and really get after it.”
With the Southwest District no longer in play and Richlands having switched classifications, the Blue Tornado tweaked its schedule, adding Bluefield, Lord Botetourt, Virginia High and Lebanon to a slate that already includes Gate City, Union and Abingdon in hopes of being better prepared for a long postseason run.
That game with Bluefield is a matchup that has been highly anticipated in recent years by fans on both sides of the state line.
“We love a challenge, we want to play somebody that is going to give us a challenge,” Taylor said. “They are great football team, a great program and we believe we have a good program too so I love a good challenge.
“We want to play those teams so come playoffs we are ready to go.”
Richlands will travel to Mitchell Stadium this season to face the Beavers, who defeated the Blue Tornado in their last visit to Bluefield in 2008.
“It is always a huge crowd, I have been to those games as a kid and it is unbelievable playing in Bluefield,” Taylor said. “That is where we will be at this year, it is a crazy atmosphere, just like here at home at Ernie Hicks and I just look forward to the competition.”
Having played in Richlands for three seasons, Taylor gets to play in front of some of the largest crowds in the area for high school football.
“It is an unbelievable opportunity, knowing that everybody in the community is out here to support you,” Taylor said. “You are living your dream in a sense because you grow up coming to the games, your parents go, your grandparents go, everybody, it is a whole community thing.
“When you are part of that as a player, it is kind of breathtaking when the balloons go up and it is time to kick off.”
Taylor hopes to continue his career at the next level.
“I am pretty interested in playing college football somewhere,” Taylor said. “I have got some schools that have sent me letters and have shown some interest, I would like to head out and watch a few of their games and meet some coaches.”
That can wait. Taylor is focused right now on helping Richlands make another long playoff run. Regionals no longer exist in Virginia, but a state title certainly does.
“We want to hit the regional, as a starter or a player who got to play on the field at the varsity level, I have never personally been past that regional mark,” Taylor said. “In my senior year, my last year starting defense and being defensive captain, that would be a great opportunity to finally get to go on in the playoffs and hopefully a state championship.”
—Contact Brian Woodson