Forty-eight minutes of winning football is all that separates Stuarts Draft and Riverheads from championship weekend in Salem.
On Saturday, the Cougars (13-0) host 2A West power Richlands (12-1) in the VHSL Group 2A semifinals, while the Gladiators (11-1) travel to Galax for a rematch in the 1A semifinals with the Maroon Tide (11-2), the team that edged Riverheads in last year’s 1A championship game.
The Stuarts Draft-Richlands winner will take on either defending champ Appomattox County or Goochland next Saturday at Salem City Stadium. Either Sussex Central or George Wythe-Wytheville will await the Riverheads-Galax winner.
Will the Cougars keep their superb season going? Can the Gladiators get a little payback and return to the final for the fifth time since 2000?
Here’s a look at the teams they’ll have to get past.
The last time Richlands head coach Greg Mance brought his team to Augusta County was in 2014, when the Blue Tornado faced Wilson Memorial in the Group 2A state semifinals. The Green Hornets shut down Richlands’ big-play offense on the way to a 13-7 overtime victory.
Richlands is back in the county again for a state semifinal, this time against Stuarts Draft on Saturday, and Mance said his team is better prepared.
“We try to put a system in to fit what we have,” said Mance, who is in his 20th year at Richlands, “but we understand to be effective in the playoffs, you’ve got to run the football. Two years ago, our running game was not very good. This year, it’s been getting better as the season’s gone on.”
Richlands’ best team rushing came at the right time. It rolled up 274 yards in a 51-7 victory over John Battle in the first round of the 2A West playoffs.
But when you talk about the Blue Tornado offense, the conversation starts with their quarterback, John-Luke Asbury.
“He’s the one who makes us tick,” Mance said. “He runs the ball well, he can extend a play and he’s one of the best pure passers you’ll ever see.”
Asbury, a 6-foot-2 senior, has completed over 62 percent of his passes, going 199-for-318 for 3,093 yards and 46 touchdowns. He threw for seven TDs in a 55-14 win over Virginia High on Sept. 23, and threw for five TDs in three other games.
“He’s one of those quarterbacks who will take what you give him,” Mance said. “A lot of people get caught up in throwing the deep ball, but he’s not afraid to throw the short ball.”
Asbury’s top targets are Cody Howie (81 rec., 816 yards, 13 TDs), Da’Quan Booker (50-549-9), Taylor Horn (39-429-9) and 6-3 senior Scottie Ball (44-397-7). Booker had a 50-yard TD catch and Howie ran 42 yards for another score in a 34-16 dismantling of Graham in the region semifinals last Saturday.
Mance, who has won 185 games as Richlands’ coach, had a lot of holes to fill this season on defense. He lost eight starters from last year’s team that lost in overtime to Appomattox in the region semifinals.
“We’ve got eight new starters on the defense and I couldn’t be prouder of that unit and the coaches,” Mance said. “They’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations. Only two teams have scored 20 points on us, and that says a lot about the defense.”
Leading the defense at the tackles are senior Landon Lowe (6-3, 280) and junior Andrew Dye (6-3, 270).
“They’ve been tremendous,” Mance said. “They’re hard to block and they’ve drawn a lot of double-teams, and that’s freed up our linebackers [Dillan Elswick and Seth Johnson], and those two have played lights out the past two weeks.”
Mance said he’ll need a good defensive performance to slow down the Cougars.
“They have the best offensive line we’ve played against all year,” he said. “They come off as a Wing-T team, but the backs are flying everywhere, and the line is pulling with them. Those backs [Izzy Johnson, Dylan Lehmann and Xzavier Gunn] are three of the best we’ve seen this year. All of them have tremendous speed and can make the first guy miss.”
Mance said Stuarts Draft’s defense offers just as tough a challenge.
“Their defensive ends [seniors John Gumann and Bryce Carter] are two of the best defensive ends we’ve seen all year. Then, you have their linebackers, who constantly fly to the ball, and the secondary has length and they’re so athletic. They’re the real deal and they’re undefeated for a reason.”
The Maroon Tide, who won their first state championship in 2015, are in the midst of another deep playoff run, so not much has changed from last year.
Except the experience level. Galax has gone from a senior-laden team, featuring all-state stars Charles Harris and Josh Spurlin, to a team with a lot of new faces.
“We’re a young, young football team,” said head coach Mark Dixon. “That’s something people don’t get. You look out on that field, pretty much the whole defense, with the exception of two linebackers, we’re all 9th, 10th and 11th-graders, and most of them are 9th and 10th. We are young young. And it shows up.”
The Maroon Tide’s only losses this season came back to back — 31-20 to Fort Chiswell on Oct. 8, and 42-28 to 2A West power Graham on Oct. 14. Since then, the team has won six straight games, including last week’s rematch with Fort Chiswell in the region semifinals
“I never dreamed we’d get here. I really didn’t,” Dixon said. “So I’m really proud of them.”
Dougie Peoples, a junior, has picked up Harris’ mantle at running back and it has fit him well. He’s rushed for 2,525 yards and 37 TDs, and is the leading tackler on defense 56.5 and four sacks.
Sophomore Blake Brown also is a 1,000-yard rusher for the Tide with 1,315 yards and 14 TDs.
But Dixon, whose team had to hold on for a last-second 7-6 win over the Gladiators last year, knows what to expect from his opponent this year, and it concerns him.
“I’m afraid to even watch [the film],” he said. “Last year I knew we had answers. This year I’m not sure we have any.”
The Tide will have to have the answers to the Red Pride’s rushing attack, led by senior Harrison Schaefer, who has 1,605 yards on 212 carries and 29 touchdowns. Senior Brett Hostetler, who scored three rushing TDs in last Friday’s region semifinal win over Colonial Beach, has 665 yards and 10 TDs, while junior Dalton Jordan has 691 yards and nine touchdowns.
Then there is Riverheads’ defense, which has allowed 132 points in 13 games. Galax will need an answer to players like linebacker Ridge Stokes, the Shenandoah District and Conference 44 Defensive Player of the Year, as well as Chase Armstrong and Jeffrey Maddox, both all-district linemen; all-conference lineman Alex Diehl; Hostetler, an all-district linebacker; and all-Conference 44 defensive backs Tyler Smith and Blake Smith.
“Last year there were some matchups I knew we were going to win,” Dixon said. “If they’re anything like they were last year, and I hear they’re better, that’s pretty scary.”