Three county football teams have their sights set on the next step up the postseason ladder as the VHSL playoffs resume Friday night.
Second-seeded Riverheads, which received a first-round bye in Region 1A East, hosts No. 7 Essex. Stuarts Draft, top seed in 2A East, hosts No. 8 Madison Central, while No. 6 Buffalo Gap will be on the road to take on No. 3 Clarke County.
All games start at 7 p.m., with the winners moving on to next week’s region semifinals.
Here’s a look at Friday’s games.
No. 7 Essex (6-5) at No. 2 Riverheads (9-1)
Essex may have a 6-5 record, but it isn’t your run-of-the-mill 6-5 team. In fact, the Trojans are much better than that record indicates.
The preseason No. 1 in 1A this year, Essex lost four of its first five games, but those losses were to bigger schools that are all in the playoffs: 2A Goochland (14-0), 4A King George (20-0), 5A Deep Run (42-14) and 3A James Monroe (35-6). The fifth loss was to Colonial Beach, the third seed in 1A East.
And with a high-power offense led by running back K.J. Dameron, who started the season as a quarterback, the Trojans are an interesting challenge for the Gladiators.
“He played the first five games at quarterback before he became a running back,” Gladiators head coach Robert Casto said of the sophomore. “He’s a big, strong kid, who has a lot of speed and a good offensive line in front of him. He’s a good player.”
The 6-foot-1 Dameron has 1,165 rushing yards and is averaging 8.6 yards per carry. He rushed for 258 yards and five touchdowns in the Trojans’ 55-20 first-round win over William Campbell.
The Gladiators’ rushing attack will present the same problem for the Trojans. only multiplied.
Harrison Schaefer leads the Red Pride with 1,386 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Also carrying the load are junior Dalton Jordan (545 yds., nine TD), senior Brett Hostetler (518 yds., 10 TD), sophomore Devin Morris (408 yds., nine TD) and junior Jackson Shover 205 yds., three TD).
Much like the first bye week earlier in the season, Casto and the Gladiators took advantage of the first-round pass.
“We’re getting healthier and we’re going back to the basics,” he said. “We’ll see how we match up with them.”
No. 8 Madison County (6-5) at No. 1 Stuarts Draft (10-0)
Like Riverheads, the Cougars, who thumped No. 16 Nottoway 49-16 last week, are hosting a 6-5 team in the Mountaineers on Friday.
And like Essex, Madison, which crushed Nandua 63-26 in the first round, is a team with the size and speed that could give Stuarts Draft’s strong defense a tough test.
“They have some really good skill players,” said Cougars head coach Nathan Floyd. “The quarterback (Chris Smith) is a dual threat, the running back (Isiah Smith) is one of the best we’ve seen this year and they have two big receivers and two big tight ends.
“It’s going to be a challenge to stop those guys,” Floyd added. “You can have them third-and-15 and they’ll pop an 85-yard touchdown run. We’ve got to stop the big plays.”
It’s a challenge that Floyd’s defense, which has given up an average of 7.7 points over the last 10 games, has faced before and relishes the chance to do it.
“They see it as a great opportunity,” Floyd said. “They know Madison will be a challenge and they’re preparing for it as they have in the past.”
No. 6 Buffalo Gap (8-3) at No. 3 Clarke County (9-2)
Size and speed is a lethal combination, and the Eagles, 28-7 winners last week over Robert E. Lee, has it.
“They’re a tough, hard-nosed bunch,” Bison coach Andy Cline said of the Eagles, who lost to Appomattox in last year’s Group 2A final. “They’re big on the offensive line, but they move well and they run their offense to a T. The defense is just stout. They do a good job.”
The Eagles roared back from a 7-0 halftime deficit to eliminate Lee. Senior back Hunter Rogers rushed for 204 yards — 158 in the second half — and two touchdowns against the Leemen, while teammate Kyle Baylor had a 53-yard TD run and also had a pick-6 in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
The Bison got to the second round after an 8-6 win over No. 11 Brunswick. Their defense responded to a challenge similar to the one they face Friday — finding a way to bottle up a team with a lot of good skill people.
“We’ve got to limit mistakes, take care of the ball and find ways to get first downs and score some points,” Cline said.
With starting quarterback Lucas Wheeler out for the season with an ankle injury, Gap has been relying on sophomore McKenzie Hamric to run the offense and Cline said he’s stepped up to the challenge.
“He’s really stepped in and done a good job,” Cline said. “We’re lucky to have someone who could step in there and lead us.”.