ANALYSIS: Final four a study in football history

-A A +A

Group A Division 1 state semifinals includes some of Virginia's most storied programs.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

The combination of history and football turns me on. Not like the combination of biscuits and gravy, or the combination of free time and a fly rod, but pretty close. And I’m having a ball looking over the remaining field in the Group A Division 1 football playoffs.

Having reached the state’s final four, Galax is enjoying a historic year in football. To some degree, history is what the Maroon Tide will be going up against – enough of it to make your head spin.

Virginia has its share of historically-significant football programs, especially in its smallest classification. Names like Gate City and Giles, Gretna and Parry McCluer, and the now-consolidated powers of Appalachia and Powell Valley evoke thoughts of big-time, small-town gridiron glory.

But if there is to be a who’s-who among single-A football in Virginia, the three teams joining Galax in the final four are as good a place to start as any.

Sussex Central, Clintwood and Galax’s semifinal opponent, Lunenburg Central, were all in the Maroon Tide’s shoes at some point in their histories, venturing this far into the postseason for the very first time. Suffice it to say, that was some time ago, because Galax has played its way into the company of some of the state’s elite.

To a guy writing about a school making its first state semifinal appearance, the numbers those teams have put up over the years are awe-inspiring.

From the coalfields to Southside to the Tidewater area, the trio of Clintwood, Lunenburg and Sussex have left their mark on single-A football, having won a total of 29 region championships since 1973, making a combined 20 state championship game appearances and claiming nine state titles between them.

None has a more glorious past than Lunenburg Central.

Not too long ago the Chargers were the measuring stick against which all Group A football was judged. From 1979 through 1993, the school put together one of the most impressive runs in the state. And I mean, any state. For 27 straight years, 1978 through 2004, the Chargers played in the postseason, and that string started well before implementation of the current system, under which everybody and his sub-.500 brother reaches the playoffs. During coach Chippie Chappell’s 30-plus seasons (1976-2007), Lunenburg Central teams averaged more than nine wins a year. From 1984 to 1991, the school didn’t lose a regular season game, going 80-0-1.

In the 10 seasons from 1984 through 1993, Lunenburg reached the state championship game nine times. Think about the incredible ride that Galax football has been on this year. Now imagine that being duplicated eight more times in the next nine years.

To put it into perspective, that’s more than the current Mountain Empire District can say about it’s entire history, 1970-present. In its current six-school configuration, MED teams have made three appearances in the state finals, and all of those belong to Graham (in its double-A heyday), which has been in the district all of three months. Only Fort Chiswell in 1989 and Narrows in 1994 advanced as far as the state semifinals.

Clintwood isn’t far behind Lunenburg. The Greenwave has three state championships in its six appearances in the finals, though no titles since 1978. Clintwood most recently reached the finals in 2007 and 08. Under Ralph Cummins, Clintwood put together a 69-game regular season unbeaten streak (including one tie) between 1973-79. And that was in the Lonesome Pine District, once the SEC of Virginia high school football.

I had a roommate in college who played under Cummins. On a trip home from school one weekend with Eric Deel, I met the coach one Friday afternoon in a dungeon-like film room deep in the bowels of the high school.

I had rehearsed in my mind what I would say to the living legend, how I would compliment him on his program, fill him in on my appreciation for what he had accomplished during his career, and tell him about a family friend of mine who was an assistant coach on the Castlewood team that ended Clintwood’s winning streak.

Prepared as I was with my salutations, the introduction was over after a glance up from a clipboard and a short grunt.

I got chillbumps. Ralph Cummins grunted at me.

Sussex Central is a little bit down the list from the other two. The Tigers have made four trips to the finals, winning it all in 2003 and 1991, the ‘91 title coming on the strength of two 2,000-yard rushers, Antonio Procise and Alan Burgess. Imagine two guys with a combined 11,000 career rushing yards playing in the same backfield together.

The only reason Sussex doesn’t have as many state championship appearances or state titles as Lunenburg is because Sussex always had to play Lunenburg to get to the title game. Until this year, the Region A champ always met the Region B champ in the semifinals, and Sussex (Region A) was 0-5 in the state semis over a six-year span against the Region B champion Chargers. The only time in those six years that Lunenburg wasn’t in the semifinals, Sussex won state.

What should all this mean to a team from a school like Galax that measures its greatest teams every decade or so instead of for a decade at a time?

Why, nothing, of course. In terms of very short-term history, Galax’s 2011 record of 13-0 tops them all.

Besides, no ghost has ever won a football game.