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Fort hoping to end an 18-year playoff drought

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The Pioneers were close to a breakthrough year in 08 and have the components to what could be a championship team.

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

 The Cycle.

The word can be bring dread, anticipation or, for the far-sighted, both. The success or failure four-fifths of the Mountain Empire District will be determined by the cycle this year: Bland County (Class of ‘08) and Grayson County (‘07) bid farewell to extremely-talented senior classes recently and are in the early stages of rebuilding. Fort Chiswell has been looking forward to this year’s senior class for a while, while the cycle in Galax is still on an upward trend. Narrows is the only team in the district that is neither gutted nor loaded. “Fort Chiswell is by far the preseason favorite,” said Galax coach Jared Van Acker. “They have tons of returning skill, most of them seniors.” “Does anybody have anything for Fort?” mused Grayson County coach Brett McPherson. “If anybody can tackle one of those two daggone backs. That tailback [Chris Rodriguez] is a beast. The quarterback [Hody Viars] is the best athlete in the MED in my opinion, and he can do a whole lot more if he needs to. I think they can make some noise in the playoffs.” Galax appears to be a year behind the Pioneers in terms of the cycle, something that isn’t lost on Van Acker. “They had a 6-4 season and just missed playoffs, then a 1-9 when all these guys were sophomores and freshmen, then last year were 6-4. We went 5-5 then 3-7, and now we’re getting back to where the majority are juniors and seniors.” Another factor that grows larger as enrollments grow smaller is injuries. Just a couple here and there can turn a frontrunner into an also-ran. “They’re like everybody else,” said McPherson. “If that tailback gets banged up or the quarterback gets banged up, they’re right back down with everybody else.” Like Region IV (Page 6F), Region C has adopted a six-team playoff format for this year. Both McPherson and Van Acker like the new system, and for the same reasons – good teams with great records don’t get left out, while decent teams with not-so-great records get another chance. After all, Appalachia won the state title after going 5-5 a few years back. “I’m all for a 4-6 or a 3-7 making it and getting another game under their belts,” Van Acker said. “You never know, that’s one exciting thing about college basketball, you get those Cinderella stories.” “The benefits definitely outweigh the possibility of a 3-7 or 4-6 getting in,” said McPherson. “And Region C is traditionally pretty tough. The best team is going to win anyway, no matter whether you put 10 in the playoffs or two. Like the year Glenvar went 9-1 and missed getting get in, they weren’t going to beat Giles anyway. The better team is going to win.”   The Mountain Empire District, in order of last year’s finish:

Bland County (9-2 in 2008, 4-0 district) The planets all lined up for Bland County last year: An extremely gifted group of young athletes all wound up in the same grade together at a small program, played ball with one another through the years, and really had a high time once they became juniors and seniors. Thus the downside: When that program, which still is actually a combination of high schools in Bland and Rocky Gap, bids farewell to that group of kids, some tough times are sure to follow. The Bears lost 13 stellar seniors off last year’s district championship team, including quarterback and district offensive player of the year Josh Shrader, the Kennedy triplets and all-Group A punter Nick Leighton. Sophomore Dylan Kidd takes over at quarterback for the Bears, who have very little experience in the skill positions. Junior runningbacks Jacob Lambert and Jakob Haun will carry the load in the backfield for a team with just four seniors on a roster that is 31 deep and filled with freshmen and sophomores – not unlike the Bland roster a couple years ago.   Fort Chiswell (6-4, 3-1) The Pioneers were painfully close last year. A 6-4 mark would have gotten Fort into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed under the current format, and close losses to George Wythe (21-18) and state runner-up Floyd County (28-25) only made the ‘what-ifs’ that much greater at a school that hasn’t reached the playoffs in 18 years. Two players don’t make a team, but these two players certainly make this team one to watch this year. Chris Rodriguez is an absolute load at tailback and rushed for 266 yards and five touchdowns last year in wins over Galax (47-6) and Grayson County (25-6) while quarterback Hody Viars threw for 172 yards and rushed for a pair of scores in those games. The Pioneers are much more than two players, and a lot depends on how well the Fort replaces a couple of linemen lost to graduation.   Narrows (6-4, 2-2) There’s a lot of new in Narrows. Ragsdale Field has a new scoreboard, new lights, new play clocks and new bleachers. Unfortunately, there will also be a new quarterback and six new starters on both sides of the ball. After back-to-back 3-7 seasons, the Green Wave went 6-4 last year and is looking for its first playoff spot since winning the MED in 2005. Narrows will be relying on an experienced line on both sides of the ball, and returning runningback Jake Craft will be counted upon heavily. A pair of juniors, Brock Lusk and Alex Taylor, are in competition for Lowe’s old job.   Galax (3-7, 1-3) After starting what was virtually a JV team in terms of age last year, the Maroon Tide is ready to start reaping the rewards. Though Galax is still quite young, especially in the skill positions, the Maroon Tide isn’t an inexperienced team and could be looking at a pretty good run over the next couple of years, especially when mixing a seasoned team with a much lighter schedule that includes five teams that combined for five wins last year. Interest in the program has skyrocketed, with around 60 players on the roster in grades 9-12. The Maroon Tide is previewed on Page 2F.   Grayson County (0-10, 0-4) The Blue Devils are all too familiar with what Bland County is facing this year, as Grayson is still recovering from the graduation two years ago of what was probably the most athletically-gifted senior class in school history. Numbers aren’t great for the Devils, who should show improvement, although another grueling schedule may not translate into a great record. The Blue Devils are previewed on page 8F. Jerry Richardson contributed to this story.