BLUEFIELD, Va. —After Graham’s 42-6 win at Princeton, it may be a little more difficult for the G-Men fans to get fired up over the impending Southwest District game at winless Lebanon.
That’s no problem for Graham head coach Tony Palmer. It’s not his job to fire up the fans. It’s his job to fire up the players.
Perpetual self-improvement is the agenda when the defending VHSL Class 2 state champion G-Men (3-2, 1-0 SWD) take on the Pioneers (0-5, 0-1).
“This is a game where we have to go, we have to execute and we have to get better,” Palmer said. “We’re working to get better game-by-game and hopefully if we make it into the playoffs, we’ll be playing our best football.”
As of this week, Graham was ranked third in VHSL Region 2D with a power rating of 17.80. Unbeaten Ridgeview (5-0, 22.80), Union (5-1, 20.00) — which represents one of Graham’s two losses this season — and Tazewell (4-1, 19.00) are the top three.
Lebanon High School produced some outstanding football teams before the turn of the century and played in some truly epic football games, like in 1994 when explosive Thomas Q. Jones led Powell Valley to a 34-33 win over iron-sided Nathan McGlothlin and the Pioneers in the Class AA, Division 2 state semifinals.
But we’re a long way from 1994, to say nothing of 1998 when Graham was the last team faced by Lebanon that season and other giants walked this earth.
The Pioneers still have some good football players — quarterback Casey White, for instance — just not nearly enough of them. There were rumors in the preseason that Lebanon might even go the way of Bland County. Fortunately, the Pioneers are still with us.
“They have had some hard times lately but their coach does a good job. I’m not exactly sure what their numbers are like this year,” Palmer said.
“I think they’re probably better this year than they did last year. I think their quarterback is pretty good and I think they have a running back that runs hard,” said Palmer.
The way the G-Men head coach sees it, his own squad is far from a finished product. If Graham expects to get past Region D juggernauts like Ridgeview, Union and even old SWD nemesis Richlands — to say nothing of an ominously undefeated Stuart’s Draft rising up Region 2B’s Shenandoah Valley — the G-Men must pay attention to detail. They’ve already learned they can’t big-play their way out of every tight spot.
“We’re committing way too many penalties right now. That’s something we’ve really got to cut back on. If we can get that out of our way, I think we’ll be on our way to playing pretty good,” said Palmer, whose team committed 17 penalties for 136 yards at Princeton.
“That’s way too many penalties. It creates poor field position for us and things of that nature. Against an evenly-matched team or one that’s slightly better than us, that’ll get us beat.”
Palmer said the flags have been flying for assorted infractions and miscues and he noted that penalties were an issue for the G-Men this time last year. That may provide an object lesson which can motivate his team to locate the remedy.
“Once we got those penalties down, that’s when we took off. We have to try to concentrate that and become a better football team,” he said.
Graham will be welcoming a couple of its seniors back to the squad after some injury down time, including Isaiah Justice — a solid playmaker on both sides of the football — and Mason Menefee, who plays several key special teams roles and also rotates in on defense.
“Everybody contributes in his own way,” said Palmer, whose program thrives on contributions from its role players.
Graham also has some stellar players, particularly quarterback Devin Lester, who has committed to play at NCAA Division I Old Dominion University. Last week, running back Tre Booker churned out 124 yards rushing, including a touchdown, so Lester could focus on passing for 254 yards and three scoring strikes, one to Xayvion Turner and two to Joey Dales — all in the first half.
The G-Men continue to attract attention from college scouts at several levels. Linebacker Aaron Edwards recently received an offer from Division II Glenville State, while wide receiver Marqus Ray has received an offer from West Virginia State, which also plays in the Mountain East Conference.
Graham is still favored to win a Southwest District championship. But Palmer expects the opponents who know them best to be plotting their downfall over the coming weeks.
“Yeah, that’s the plan. But people have other plans, as well,” Palmer said.