(Editor's note: This story has been corrected to account for the fact that George Wythe coach H.S. Ingo resigned from his head coaching position and also that all charges against him were subsequently dropped).
NARROWS, Va. — The year 1917 marked the second season of high school football’s existence in the town of Wytheville, Va., One of their opponents was Narrows High School. In a decidedly defensively-oriented affair, Narrows prevailed 6-0. The series between the two communities resumed in the 1930s and 53 more gridiron meetings between the two occurred during the 20th century.
Strangely enough, when the Maroons (8-2) arrive at Harry Ragsdale Stadium in Narrows for Friday night’s VHSL Region 1C semifinal game, it will mark the first time the Green Wave (11-0) has crossed paths with them in 21 years. This is their first meeting of the 21st century.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
“It’s been a long time. Yes it has,” said Narrows head coach Kelly Lowe, whose dad, Don Lowe, was the last Narrows football coach to face George Wythe back in 1998.
A lot of things happened during the interim. The Maroons — whose pointy-eared mascot looks like it might be some kind of exceptionally buff gnome — had a successful nine-year run under head coach Donnie Pruitt, including a state championship in 2002. H.S. Ingo took over the reins for a five-year stint that included a state title in 2012.
Ingo resigned his coaching position in spring of 2014 after being charged with hazing and corporal punishment stemming from the enforcement of team rules. All charges were subsequently dropped and Ingo remains a teacher in the Wythe County School System.
Ingo retained local support — including from the player whose reported punishment resulted in the misdemeanor charges — but not enough to reverse his ouster. Current head coach Brandon Harner came to George Wythe in 2014 tasked with unifying what had become a divided football community.
Harner unquestionably deserves credit for healing wounds that might’ve sunk other programs for a decade or more. He has taken the Maroons to the playoffs every year of his tenure at George Wythe, including regional championships in 2015 and 2016. Last year the Maroons were knocked out in the second round, 42-14, by Galax.
“I think we’ve done an excellent job after coming into a tough situation like I did. Our coaching staff has done an excellent job, and so have our kids,” said Harner, who came to Wytheville from Carroll County.
Harner’s offensive philosophies have evolved to adapt to his personnel over the seasons. These days they’re adept at getting the ball to playmakers in space, creating rushing opportunities off of the passing game.
“We’ve been more of a hybrid wing-T, more of a spread wing-T. Two years ago we knew coming up for the next couple years we just didn’t have the kids we had in the past running that. But we did have kids who were athletic enough ... to run the spread. We transitioned to that,” Harner said.
Senior Quarterback Cole Simmons has passed for more than 2,200 yards out of Harner’s spread offense more than 1,100 of them to junior wide receiver Braydon Thompson, who moved to Wytheville from Las Vegas in the fifth grade. He has 14 scoring catches for the Maroons thus far.
Senior running back Ravvon Wells has rushed for more than 1,000 yards on the season — his third consecutive year doing so.
“I think they’re a very talented football team,” said Lowe. “Their quarterback can hurt you throwing the ball and running. They’ve got the Wells kid at running back who is as solid as we’ve seen. Then you throw in the Thompson kid at receiver and those are three pretty good weapons. And their offensive line does a great job, too. They’re fundamentally sound and they’re very athletic.”
George Wythe’s numbers, of course, have been racked up over nine games. The Maroons were one of the programs stranded when Bland County cancelled its 2019 football season. Like top-seeded Galax, George Wythe opted to have its power rating calculated against a nine-game slate.
“Taking the nine games was much better than taking the forfeit, because we’d have only gotten 16 points from Bland County. Dividing our points by nine was much better. And trying to pick somebody up at that point of the year was almost ridiculous,” said Harner, who noted the only alternate dates he could find were teams already on his schedule.
“We’d have had to play them twice. And that wasn’t going to be of any benefit for anybody,” said Harner, whose team comes off a 63-21 win over Parry McCluer.
Narrows comes enters the fray following a 35-7 win over Grayson County.
The Green Wave offense has been a very balanced attack, with Matthew Morgan (125-1,099, 14 TDs), pacing the ground game. Chad Blaker (84-882, 19 TDs) and quarterback Chase Blaker (127-733, 5 TDs) cover their fair share of real estate in the rushing attack. On the passing side, Chase Blaker has completed 69 of 118 attempts for 1,273 yards and 16 scores, giving up only three picks on the season. Dustin Wiley (26-580, 10 TDs) is Narrows’ most prolific pass-catcher, but Morgan, Reid Bowman — who is also the team punter — and Jake Robertson have all scored touchdowns on the routes this season.
“Narrows runs a very effective offense with the traps and powers. We’ve got to stop that. Their tailback and quarterback are extremely athletic kids. They’ve got some speed ... they’re very, very fast,The offensive line does a good job blocking. The receivers make the plays, they catch good balls. Offensively, they can be scary if they get out in the open,” Harner said.
“Defensively, every film I’ve got those kids are swarming to the football. Linebackers really sit up hard. The defensive linemen are really big. They’re just a good football team. If you go 11-0, I don’t care what your schedule is or who you play, you’re a good football team,” he said.
Lowe’s team is one of only three Narrows squads to ever post 11-0 unbeaten runs and the Green Wave are one win away from being in a category all to themselves.
Lowe has taken pains to convey to his players that this week, they face an opponent who won’t offer much, if any, margin for error. Past mistakes that have proven of little consequence to the outcome previously this season will likely have troublesome repercussions against the Maroons.
“We’ve got to cut down penalties. We’ve got to do a better job with that, and we’ve got to adjust to the way people are calling the game. That’s something we didn’t do a very good job of last week,” Lowe said.
“We still want to be aggressive with our blocks and still get after it, but we’ve got to be a little smarter. We’ve got to make sure that we focus on us and do our technique and just really cut down on some of the silly penalties.”