BLUEFIELD, Va. — It has been 17 years since Graham played for a state football championship.
Rex Bradshaw still remembers the pain of falling short in a 24-10 decision in the Division 3 finals to Harrisonsburg in 2001.
“It hurt,” said Bradshaw, an offensive and defensive lineman for the G-Men that season, and now the defensive coordinator for Graham. “We had a great team that year, put up a lot of numbers on the offense, defense probably wasn’t its strongest. We got to that game and didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We are trying to teach that this week, you don’t want to get there and then not finish.”
Finishing is the definite plan on Saturday as Graham (13-1) travels to Salem Stadium for the Class 2 state championship game against unbeaten Goochland (14-0). Kickoff is slated for 4:30 p.m.
“This is great. This is one of those things you dream about,” said Graham offensive line coach Chris Austin, who was a sophomore teammate with head coach Tony Palmer on Graham’s state championship team in 1989. “When I was there in ‘89, I was just a sophomore so you really don’t appreciate it until a few years later. I enjoyed it, but I love to see these kids get back to that and get the opportunity to experience it.
Graham, which also won state titles in 1962 and 1995, will be striving for its first championship in 23 years.
“You feel a sense of accomplishment, togetherness,” said Graham head coach Tony Palmer, who was a running back on that ‘89 team that defeated Southampton 16-0 in the Division 3 state finals. “Make no mistake about it, can’t one person win this, football is the ultimate team sport. One person can’t do it, and we have several guys on this team, every last one of them has made their own contribution in their own way. I think that is part of the reason we have been successful this year.”
Continuing that one more week is the plan for Graham, which has won 13 games in a row, including last week’s convincing 57-13 beating of Radford in the Class 2 semifinals, also played in Salem. The G-Men took a 48-0 lead at halftime, with the defense forcing five turnovers, while Cam Allen threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more.
“I think we played pretty well. I think we kind of set the tone on the first drive,” said Palmer, whose G-Men drove the field for a touchdown on the opening possession of the game. “We were physical on the first drive, scored, played good defense after that and it just was just the snowball effect for them after that.”
That doesn’t mean Graham was satisfied with those results. The Graham coaches in the visiting press box were vocal, shouting their displeasure at mistakes by the G-Men despite the lopsided first half score.
“When you play this game and you coach this game you are looking for perfection,” Palmer said. “You are not going to get it, it is impossible, somebody is going to miss a block, somebody is going to miss a tackle. That is what you have to coach toward and I think the assistant coaches have done a good job this year. They have stepped up to the plate and they have owned their positions so they have really worked hard and I am proud of them.”
They certainly aren’t doing it for the extra stipends in the paycheck.
“We are definitely not doing it for money,” Palmer said. “We are doing it for the love of Graham High School, our community and our kids. We want to see our kids get the most out of life and have fun doing it.”
Goochland, which defeated East Rockingham 35-21 in the semifinals on Saturday, won’t be a pushover, having captured titles in 2006 (against Giles) and in 2012 (vs. Essex). The Bulldogs — who were led by Devin McCray and Conner Popielarz, who ran for 285 yards and five touchdowns against the Eagles — are unbeaten this season, and lost just once in 2016 and ‘17, both in the postseason.
“Somebody with a ‘G’ will win a state championship next week,” said Palmer, on the field after Saturday win over Radford. “Goochland, they have been here many times, they are a good program and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Getting Graham back to this point has been Palmer’s goal since taking over as head coach for Mike Williams. Palmer has led the G-Men to 41 wins over the last four seasons.
“It was our dream when we got the job,” said Palmer, who was joined during a Tuesday afternoon pre-practice interview by Bradshaw and Austin. “These are the guys that have been by my side the whole time. Then we added a couple of pieces this year, added some last year and I think this is the best coaching staff we have had since I have been here. I think the guys own their positions and they take pride in coaching them and making them better football players. I think that winning has been the results of that and with the way that we are winning.”
The Cam Allen-led G-Men are enjoying it too. Allen, who will play next year at Purdue, has accumulated more than 4,000 passing and rushing yards this season, along with accounting for 53 offensive touchdowns, and 57 in all.
“He wants to win, and all the kids, they want this,” Palmer said. “They are excited about the opportunity to play in this game. It means a lot for them to play there, but the goal is to win it and they know that.
“We have got to go get it. We are not going for the show, we are going to try to win it, not going for the cotton candy.”
Only two Class 2 teams in Virginia are still practicing football in what is expected to be cold and possibly snowy week ahead. No complaints from the G-Men.
“There is no better feeling to be out here playing football in the winter time, in December, it feels great,” said Graham senior receiver Chris Shinault, who had a touchdown catch and an interception against the Bobcats. “It really doesn’t get any better than this. I just feel like if we play to the best of our ability then it will come together for us and we are going to try to win next week.”
Expect a big crowd from Bluefield to make the trip up Interstate 81 to Salem. Bradshaw, who is a police officer in Bluefield, Virginia, has certainly heard plenty of well wishes from the community.
“You can’t go into Walmart and get out of there quick, but that is part of being part of this community,” he said, with a smile. “Everybody loves it when we are successful, that is what we want and everybody has our back so we have got to put on a show.”
Do that, and Allen expects the G-Men can return as state champions.
“One more game,” he said. “We are going to prepare the same way, come out the same way and hopefully in the end it is going to be the same thing.”