Greg Mance doesn’t have fond memories of his last big road trip.
The Richlands head football coach remembers making the decision to travel from Cedar Bluff in Tazewell County to Lynchburg for the Group AA, Division 3 state championship at Williams Stadium at Liberty University in 2010.
The four-hour trip, which began at 7:30 a.m. — meaning his player had to likely rise by 6:30 a.m. — managed to get the Blue Tornado where they needed to be for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff, but the ensuing malaise wasn’t enough to snap them out of the biggest game of the season.
Richlands ended up losing to Poquoson, 23-17, marking the team’s third loss in the state final since 2005 — though it had won the Group AA, Division 3 state title in 2006.
Mance had four years to think about that decision, and this time, he made a different one heading into the state semifinals. On Friday, after practicing on their field one last time, the Blue Tornado made the day-early trip north to Fishersville.
“If we play well,” Mance said, “it’ll be a good decision. But if we stink up the joint, we’ll probably blame the trip again.”
Perhaps it’s a polarizing decision for the No. 6 Blue Tornado (10-3), who head into the contest with No. 2 Wilson Memorial (12-1) looking every bit the underdog.
Richlands scores over 33 points per game and are led by senior quarterback River Michaels, who’s thrown for over 1,500 yards, but the team has also given up over 17 points per contest and are facing an opponent that scores nearly 40 points on average.
While Richlands has punched above its weight in the last few weeks, taking out No. 3 Marion 41-15 and No. 2 Gate City 35-28 in the Group 2A West Region, the stakes are higher here. The Green Hornets, with 18 seniors, are back in the state semifinals for the third time in four seasons.
The Green Hornets, the highest remaining seed in Group 2A, also give up just 4.4 points per game and have secured seven shutouts.
“They have a good football team,” Mance said. “They’re the real deal.”
What the Blue Tornado might have trouble with, at least initially, will be the double-wing offense. Richlands, which plays in the Southwest District, hasn’t seen a single- or double-wing team all season.
“We haven’t seen anything like this,” Mance said, “which means we’ve had a hard time replicating it in practice. I think Patrick County ran it three years ago, but most of the teams we face now are either spread or Power-I.”
But Richlands does have a leg up on Wilson where it counts: state final appearances.
This has traditionally been the fork in the road for the Green Hornets.
Richlands, meanwhile, has been a playoff team for over a decade. According to VHSL-Reference.com, the Blue Tornado have gone 25-12 in the postseason since 1999, while the Green Hornets have gone just 10-4, with 13 of those games coming since 2011.
“Our kids are used to playing in the postseason,” Mance said. “They take pride in it.”
But before the Blue Tornado clinch their sixth berth in the state finals since 2005, they’ll first have to outlast one of the best defensive teams in all of Group 2A. Perhaps that’s one reason why they’re getting an early start Friday on the way to Fishersville: To study up, get some rest and prepare for a big day ahead.
“I’d like to see the No. 1 [seed] if they were No. 2,” Mance said. “It’s going to be a tough challenge.”
Group 2A State Semifinals
No. 6 Richlands (10-3) at No. 2 Wilson Memorial (12-1)
•Where: Steve Geiman Field
•When: 2 p.m. Saturday
•Last time out: Richlands 35, Gate City 28; Wilson Memorial 25, Brunswick 6
•Hornets skinny: Stick to the plan. Ground and pound. If the Hornets are over 300 yards rushing and force at least three turnovers, this game is in the bag.
•Blue Tornado skinny: Play keep away. Richlands will need to somehow play both smart and risky, needing big plays against the Green Hornets.