When the Graham boys soccer team loaded up the bus this morning for a projected 11 a.m. departure for Onley, Va., the G-Men embarked on the road trip of a lifetime.
The journey is special enough on account of it’s purpose: to transport Graham’s coaches and players to the site of their first ever VHSL state championship match. Region 2D champion Graham and Region 2A champion Nandua are both unbeaten teams. The stage is set for a classic 2021 season finale.
There is something else that makes Graham’s road trip even more special. This is the first time in many, many years that a Southwest Virginia high school athletic team will have traveled all the way across the Commonwealth and across the Chesapeake Bay to play in a state championship contest at the opponent’s home field.
When I started my career as a sports journalist in 1989, the VHSL held the Group A, AA and AAA state boys basketball tournaments at the University of Virginia’s University Hall. In other sports at the time, especially outdoor sports like football and baseball, state championships were played on a rotating basis on given regional champions’ home fields. Somebody was invariably facing a bear of a road trip, depending on which half of the state got priority to host.
In early December of 1995, Powell Valley High School’s football team earned yet another trip to the VHSL Group A, Division 2 state championship game, which was to be played against Region A champion Northampton in Eastville, Va., which is located on the Eastern Shore about 30 miles south of Nandua High School. That contest would be the final high school football game for Powell Valley running back Thomas Jones, a VHSL Hall of Famer who was nominated for the NFL Hall of Fame in 2020.
Jones was not in range to realistically overtake Terry Kirby’s VHSL state rushing record but was within sight of Kirby’s career touchdown mark. Jones and his teammates had to make the attempt with a 500 mile bus ride under their belts. I made the same trip in a compact car. It was neither a bed of roses nor a pleasure cruise. Not even after arriving.
It had recently snowed on the other side of the Chesapeake. Northampton’s field was basically a mud hole, so the VHSL decided to move the game to Nandua. The field there was also basically a mud hole. In an unheated press box, standing room only, I watched one of the most freakishly talented high school running backs of all time eclipse Kirby’s TD record en route to 36-6 victory over Northampton on a field no state championship game should ever have been played on. It was kind of a disgrace. It was also kind of magnificent.
I have covered many state championship football games in Virginia over the years. Interestingly enough, the games I remember more vividly are the ones that were played on high school fields. My memories of the trip to the Eastern Shore remain among the most vivid. So it will likely be with the Graham coaches, players and fans who are there today.
Given the way state championships have been conducted in recent decades, Graham’s soccer road trip to appears to be somewhat unfair. It certainly poses a hardship for Graham’s players and coaches, to say nothing of fans who are unable to take such lengthy trip at such short notice. This may very well be the longest VHSL state championship road trip of any kind since the 1990s. Given that it was dictated arbitrarily by circumstances of the pandemic, my guess is that it’s an ordeal that is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
Here is the glass-half-full observation. Any state championship game appearance is a rare achievement. This one is even rarer than most. I’d be willing to bet crossing the Chesapeake Bay to arrive upon Virginia’s Eastern Shore is terra incognita for most of Graham’s players and coaches. I’ve made this trip: I assure you, the final leg of the crossing is rather impressive. This trip really is more of a genuine adventure for the G-Men than it is for the Warriors, who are simply occupying familiar surroundings awaiting the arrival of an unknown opponent.
Nandua certainly enjoys a home field advantage today. But whatever else happens, the Graham boys soccer team has already secured its share of bragging rights.
George Thwaites is Sports Editor of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com