By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
That 4-1 record that the Graham football team secured with a 22-16 win over Princeton on Friday night is nice.
There will be no time to celebrate for the G-Men, who now must prepare for the Mountain Empire District, which has grown into one of the more competitive Group A football leagues in Virginia.
“It is going to be a slugfest every week, I am astonished at how strong our district is,” Graham head coach Mike Williams said. “I don’t know how it sizes up with other single A districts in the state, but I would think it would be pretty good.”
Four of the six teams in the MED are 4-1 for a combined mark of 16-4, and their losses have come to four teams with a record of 16-5.
“We have four out of six teams are one-loss teams,” said Williams, prior to Graham’s win over Princeton. “It will shake out in the next couple of weeks though when all of us one-loss teams start playing each other.
“Of course that will determine the district standings at the end of the year.”
With the movement to six classes in Virginia High School League athletics, it’s been said that districts ‘will no longer matter’ starting in 2013. Perhaps they don’t even matter now since as Giles’ head coach Jeff Williams says, nearly everyone makes the football playoffs with the current system.
“We don’t usually try to set our goal to make the playoffs,” said Williams, during a preseason interview. “We try to keep our goals realistic and my number one goal every year is to win more than we lose and then anything better than that we’ll take.
“Now if you can do that you will pretty much get in the playoffs.”
For those who don’t think the districts matter, try telling that to the G-Men, or Richlands, who are trying for its ninth straight Southwest District title. How about Honaker or Haysi, who have played one game to determine the Black Diamond District crown for two decades and that isn’t expected to change.
Giles isn’t to be forgotten either. Williams would like nothing better than to find his Spartans on top of the Three Rivers District, as they were last season.
District play has already started in the BDD, but teams in the other three leagues start league action this week.
Graham will open MED play on Saturday with a visit from Grayson County, which defeated the G-Men 41-3 in their league debut last season on their way to the district crown. The Blue Devils then beat Graham 35-15 in the opening round of the playoffs.
The G-Men remember.
“We have got some good momentum heading into district play,” said Williams, after the win over Princeton gave the G-Men their best start since 2005, “We will enjoy this one tonight. Wins are always hard to come by and winning is funner than losing so we are glad to be 4-1.
“Now we head into a real challenge. We have got Grayson next week and that was our nemesis twice last year.”
Grayson County has lost big to defending Division 1 state champion Clintwood 49-7, but have averaged 44 points in their other games. There is also Galax and Fort Chiswell playing each other on Friday. The Maroon Tide lost 33-14 to Floyd County, but have tallied 42 per game in their wins, while the Pioneers lost 28-7 to archrival George Wythe, but have averaged 38 in victories.
Graham lost 24-8 to Richlands, but have tallied 25 points per contest in the four wins.
It was Graham’s win at Fort Chiswell that helped the G-Men get into the playoffs. They lost consecutive MED games last season to start the district slate to Grayson County and Galax (45-14).
Grayson County was the top-ranked Division 2 team on the Group AA West side of the playoff bracket, while the Maroon Tide lost to Clintwood in the D-1 state title game.
“Last year when we lined up Grayson and Galax were two of the toughest teams on our schedule and we played Grayson twice,” Williams said. “Fort Chiswell is a real good team, I think they are even better than they were a year ago.”
As a side note, in the other MED game on Friday, Narrows will seek to snap an 18-game losing streak at Bland County. Ironically, the Green Wave last won against the Bears in 2010. The Bears have dropped nine straight, with their last win coming last season against ... Narrows.
Districts will still continue to exist next year, and hopefully winning league titles will hold a sense of pride to the teams competing in those leagues, which are only being kept together for scheduling purposes.
There will still be district tournaments in basketball or baseball, but that will apparently be up to the respective leagues.
However, in football, much like in West Virginia, without the districts the only prize will be the state championship. While that is the ultimate goal for every team, only three schools in the Mountain State will win a championship, and six in Virginia.
Jeff Williams misses the old way of doing things, not only playing for a district crown, but also a regional title, which will no longer exist at any level after this season. It will continue this year in AA and AAA and end after that.
“I miss the regional play aspect of it and being able to play for a regional championship,” Jeff Williams said. “I am very disappointed that we don’t have that anymore. I just don’t like that part of it.”
His primary complaint is simply that the kids need something to play for.
“Not everybody is going to be able to win a state championship, and only a handful of teams is going to win a state championship every year,” Jeff Williams said. “You could win a district championship and then you can go on and win two more games and win a regional championship...
“That is what I miss about the whole part of it.”
District play will also begin this week in the SWD and TRD, with Richlands still the favorite to claim its ninth straight SWD crown, but watch out for this week’s opponent. Blue Tornado head coach Greg Mance mentioned Marion as a possible darkhorse prior to the season.
As for the TRD, Giles should extend Auburn’s long losing streak on Friday, and recent nemesis Radford is down, but the Spartans will face a challenge ahead.
Any discussion of the MED and what lies ahead was being delayed by Graham until the rugged five-game non-league slate was completed on Friday against Princeton. That time is now.
“We will cross that bridge when we get there,” said Williams, prior to that game. “We have Princeton this week so we really haven’t spoken about the district stuff yet.”
They have now. Graham is excited to be 4-1, but there is plenty of football left to play. Still, the G-Men are pleased to be where they’re at. The only record better would be 5-0.
“I couldn’t be happier, the coaches are doing a great job this year, we’re doing a great job by coming out here and executing and I love my team,” Graham quarterback Spencer Sheets said. “I couldn’t do anything without them.”
Williams likes to compare results from one season to the next. The G-Men lost 41-7 last year to Princeton. They won 22-16 this year. Not bad.
“That is a credit to our kids,” Mike Williams said. “They spend eight months of the offseason, they came in on their winter breaks, they came in Thanksgiving, they came in the summer, they came in on snow days when school was closed. The kids worked for this and they earned this.”
That work has paid off. It’s been over a year since that rout from last season to the Tigers, and much has happened since then. Up next is the MED, and G-Men would love to finish on top.
“That game seems forever ago. We have done a lot since then,” he said. “We finished last year pretty strong a year ago. We were real pleased with our 7 on 7s in the summer and our preseason scrimmages and so far we are off to a good start. I think the accumulation of those successes has helped determine the mindset of the kids and not just for Princeton, but for any game.
“I think these kids had a lot of confidence before the season started with strength training. A stronger kid is going to be a more confident kid.”
Let district play begin. Let it continue to matter long into the future.
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encouraged feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org