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HILLSVILLE –– The conversation about Richlands each October almost never varies.
The topics shift one to the next with familiarity, from the impressive size of the line to the speed and ability of the skill guys, from the storied history of the program to the big-time recruits playing there.
The only thing that changes year-to-year is the names, and even that isn’t changing this time around.
Once again, Carroll County finds itself one win away from the first district championship in football in the school’s history. Once again, the final major hurdle is Richlands.
The Cavaliers will not only try to hand Richlands its first loss Friday when the two meet for the Southwest District title at Ernie Hicks Stadium, but in the process be the first team to actually give the Blue Tornado a decent game since opening night, when Richlands led Gate City 3-0 at the half en route to a 31-0 win.
In bullying its way to an 8-0 record, Richlands hasn’t been held to fewer than 42 points since, and has scored in the 50s four straight games.
“They have I think 10 starters back on offense and all 11 on defense back from last year,” Carroll County coach Tom Hale said. “And they’re playing like it right now.”
The Tornado’s perfect record has been built with an average winning margin of 37 points per game.
It’s not like coach Greg Mance is points-hungry, either. His starters usually get two quarters of work before taking the rest of the night off, as was the case last week when Richlands led Graham 49-7 at halftime. The continuously-running clock that comes with a 35-point difference began less than three minutes into the second quarter in the 56-14 win.
“Richlands has an awesome football team. There’s no doubt about it,” Hale said. “Their starters haven’t played four quarters in any of their eight games. They’ve just blown everybody out. It’s going to be a big challenge for us, but that’s why you play the games.
“On paper it looks impossible but I feel like if we go down there and play our best game and they don’t come out with their A game, we’ve got a shot.”
An arsenal of offensive weapons begins with Devon Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior runningback whom Hale said already has an offer from Virginia. Quarterback Cody Lockhart is an accurate passer whose completion percentage is only augmented by the sure hands of receivers Austin Johnson and Bradley Strong.
The meaty line is anchored by 6-6, 285-pound Josh Hess, who has gotten more than his share of attention from Division I schools.
While Richlands may be awe-inspiring, Carroll County has been simply inspirational. Heavy losses to graduation, injury and plain old desertion dampened preseason optimism, but the Cavaliers have responded quite well, reeling off six straight wins since a 40-0 loss at Christiansburg.
“We felt like coming into the season that we could go to Richlands and play for a district championship,” said Hale. “That all kind of changed with the injuries and the defections, but here we are. I have to give credit to the kids and to the staff. They’ve all done a heck of a job getting us where we are right now.”
The Cavalier rushing attack has no back averaging more than 70 yards per game, but the team routinely tops 300 yards on the ground and has surpassed the 500-yard mark once.
And Carroll can say one thing that Richlands can’t – the Cavalier defense has yet to yield a touchdown in district play, giving up two defensive scores to Tazewell and a field goal to Abingdon before posting back-to-back shutouts against Marion and undefeated Grundy.
“I would have never dreamed that we would go to Grundy and shut them out,” said Hale. “They were averaging 38 points a game and they’ve got good size and good skill people. Our defense is getting better each week. We’re sticking with the same schemes and the kids are getting more comfortable with what they have to do.
“Now is as good a time as any for us to play Richlands, because we are playing well defensively.”
Richlands is seeking its seventh straight SWD title, the last non-championship season being the last time Carroll posted a win in the series, 2003.
Asked where they come from year after year, Hale said, “I ask myself that every year. Gosh, it’s amazing the athletes they’ve got, and they do a heck of a job coaching them. They’ve got a program going and they’re never rebuilding, they just reload.”
Carroll County (6-2, 3-0) at Richlands (8-0, 3-0)
Friday, 7:30 p.m., Ernie Hicks Stadium
Local radio: WRIC 97.7 FM, Richlands
Carroll County defeated Grundy 20-0
Richlands defeated Graham 56-14
2009 (Richlands won 21-13)
Last Carroll County win
Richlands won 43-14 Sept. 17
Carroll County won 28-3 Oct. 8
Richlands won 58-13 Oct. 1
Carroll County won 50-13 Sept. 17
Richlands won 51-6 Oct. 8
Carroll County won 39-0 Oct. 15
Carroll County Richlands
L to Bassett 17-14 8/27 D Gate City 31-0
D Patrick Co. 47-19 9/3 D Honaker 61-22
L to C’burg 40-0 9/10 D Powell Valley 42-20
D Tazewell 50-13 9/17 D Abingdon 43-14
D Grayson Co. 36-35 OT 9/24 Open
Open 10/1 D Tazewell 58-13
D Abingdon 28-3 10/8 D Marion 51-6
D Marion 39-0 10/15 D Lebanon 56-13
D Grundy 20-0 10/22 D Graham 56-14
at Richlands 10/29 Carroll County
Graham 11/3 Richlands
1997–Carroll Co. 22-19
1999–Carroll Co. 38-6
2000–Carroll Co. 40-28
2003–Carroll Co. 16-6
Richlands leads 11-4