By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It was “gut check time” in Pearisburg on Saturday afternoon, and the Giles Spartans players and coaches showed the “guts” that it takes to reach a state championship game.
In the chilling cold, Giles faced what coach Jeff Williams had warned was a “good, solid football team,” the Riverheads Gladiators, who came in with a 12-1 record.
Several of Giles’ 13 straight wins this season were blowouts. They had to work, and work hard, for their 14th.
The Spartans’ many fans, bundled up against the cold, were in a good mood after the Giles defense forced Riverheads into an initial three-and-out, followed immediately by Brett Whitlow’s 44-yard touchdown run on Giles’ first offensive snap.
“It’s always good to go up right at the beginning of the game,” said Giles guard Hunter Epperley. “It just gets the fans crazy and gets them into the game.”
Those fans were more subdued after the Gladiators’ wing-T offense pushed 74 yards downfield, ringing up five first downs, and tying the game 7-7. There was genuine concern when the Riverheads defense, led by the immense talent of linebacker Austin Smiley, figured out how to stifle the Giles running game.
The Spartans’ next drive fizzled on a failed fourth-and-4 run. Giles’ fourth possession of the game began with two straight runs for negative yardage.
It was time for another gut check, this time focusing on the Giles coaches’ play call.
Brian Mann tossed Giles’ only pass of the day, caught by Cody Rhodes for 26 yards and a first down. Whitlow ran for a touchdown on the next play, going over 100 yards rushing on the day, and Giles took a 14-7 lead into halftime.
Riverheads did not score again. The Giles coaches tweaked some offensive assignments at halftime, and the line got back to doing what it’s done all year — open up holes.
Epperley said, “They were coming in there hard, slanting in there hard, diving at our ankles a lot, but we just had to go off and get our blocks and stay with them ’til the backs got through the holes and ran down the field.”
The offensive line is “the key” to Giles success, Williams said. “You know, our backs are good, but they’re the key of what’s going on. That’s what we take pride in, and the kids know that. We’ve got kids in there that can really get the job done.”
The gut check also applied to the Giles defense in the second half.
The Gladiators ran eight straight plays when they got the ball in the third quarter and faced a fourth-and-1 situation at the Giles 18. Landon Diehl, who weighs only 150 pounds, was called upon to run up the middle.
Zach Simmons, 30 pounds heavier and just as determined, was there to meet him. No gain. Ball goes over to Giles on downs.
“That was probably one of the biggest moments of the game,” Epperley said. “Our defense stepped up big today. They played great, probably the best game that they’ve played all year.”
Whitlow said, “We’ve got great guys on our defense, who just do work. ... We always work hard every play, and we don’t stop until the whistle blows.”
In the last minute of the third period, Giles tailback Tyler Perdue, who had been contained most of the game, ran 61 yards through a big hole and gave the Spartans a 28-7 lead.
Neither side scored in the final 12 minutes. Riverheads mounted a 14-play drive that ended at the Giles 7 on a fourth-down screen pass that a receiver dropped. Their final series, after Diehl recovered a fumble, lasted two plays, terminated by Perdue’s interception in the end zone.
On the sidelines, the cold was long forgotten at that point. Williams said, “I don’t feel nothin’. I’m just like the kids out there. The weather’s no problem.”
After the game, the Giles public address announcer complimented both teams on their sportsmanship and advised, “Spartan fans: We’ll see you next week in Salem,” site of the Region 2A state title game.
Williams revealed that those fans had helped make the game happen in the first place. In what amounted to a collective gut check, a crowd from in and around Pearisburg battled against heavy rainfall that threatened to soak Ragsdale Field on Thursday.
“You wouldn’t believe what they (the fans) did this week, taking care of that field,” Williams said. “We must have had a hundred people involved in getting a tarp on that field from Pulaski, and getting the water off of it.”
“The field was in excellent condition after the rains we had (Thursday) night.”
Whitlow said, “We have a great fan base. They come out here and support us. They were out here drying the field off this morning. I wouldn’t rather go to any other high school.”
“It’s unreal. It’s just a dream out here. It’s crazy.”
Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at email@example.com.