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The rich just keep getting richer. Or in this case, the Richlands.
King of the hill in the Southwest District for longer than the rest of the league would like to think about, the Blue Tornado seemed ready to descend to the ranks of the merely very good after winning its fifth straight SWD and Region IV Division 3 titles last year. But just when you thought it was safe to go back to Ernie Hicks Stadium, along came the Johnson clan. A family transfer from Big Creek High School in War, W.Va. answered some very real questions for the Blue Tornado and brought with it some very real concerns for those trying to knock Richlands from its lofty perch. The influx of brothers Austin, Devon and Albert Johnson, along with cousin Cody Johnson, instantly made the Blue Tornado the team to beat once again. Which may well have been the case in the first place. Cody Johnson, a 5-10, 185-pound senior, was a three-year starter at quarterback for Big Creek and led the Owls to their first playoff berth in 10 years. His transfer over the summer prompted the move by his cousins, including Austin Johnson, a 6-1, 170-pound junior wideout/cornerback and an all-Class A pick last year in West Virginia. Tornado coach Greg Mance called Austin Johnson the fastest player he’s had in his 21 years in Richlands. Devon Johnson isn’t far behind after clocking a 4.65 in the 40. While the fight for the SWD just got tougher, the battle for playoff spots has gotten a little easier since last season, as Region IV has adopted a six-team playoff format. “I like it,” said Carroll County coach Tom Hale. “You’re not going to see 9-1 and 8-2 teams sitting out of the playoffs any more. It gives even teams on the bubble incentive to work hard because you have that chance to go on to the next level.” A 5-5 Carroll County would have earned the sixth spot had the format been in place last year, and it won’t be unheard of for a 4-6 or 3-7 team to reach the postseason, especially in smaller divisions. “There’s always going to be situations where maybe a team that’s under .500 gets in, but I think that’s better than having a 9-1 or an 8-2 sitting at home,” Hale said. “It’s a very fair format the way I look at it.” Hale said that at the end of last season, he felt Graham would be the team to beat in 09, but some off-field issues have changed his mind. “I felt Graham may have had the upper hand because they had nine starters coming back on offense and nine on defense,” he said. “They had some unfortunate things happen to a couple of their runningbacks and neither one of them are going to be back. And then Richlands had those kids transfer in, which gave them a tremendous boost. You’ve got to pick Richlands regardless, because they’ve won five in a row.” The Southwest District, in order of last year’s finish: Richlands (9-4 in 2008, 6-0 district) Misleading is the fact that the Blue Tornado returns just two starters on offense and four on defense. Transfers Austin, Devon, Albert and Cody Johnson will make an immediate impact and could make Richlands one of the quickest teams ever at the school. Quarterback Cody Johnson will need to learn the intricacies of the spread offense after being a wing-T quarterback at Big Creek. Greg Mance, entering his 14th season as Richlands’ head coach, returns speedy Bradley Strong while the defense will be led by end Will Lowe and linebacker Cody Thomas. Tazewell (9-3, 5-1) Matt Muncy took his 1,367 yards of offense and 17 touchdowns to the ACC in the form of a spot on the Wake Forest roster. Fourth-year head coach Bobby Wyatt lost to Richlands in the Region IV Division 3 finals but returns six offensive starters and eight on defense. Quarterback Cody Lockhart, tight end Cory Beavers and runningback Dustin Dean will lead the Bulldogs’ spread offense. Defensive back Jonathan Corner returns after registering 84 tackles last year. Carroll County (5-5, 3-3) A lot of the Cavaliers’ success relies on how well scheme changes on both sides of the ball work out for 11th-year head coach Tom Hale. Carroll County is previewed on Page 4F. Graham (4-7, 3-3) Dominique Lane won’t return to the team after rushing for more than 900 yards as a junior, but the G-Men still return 15 starters, including senior quarterback David Marrs, fullback Zack Mickel and wideout Torian Byrd. Graham’s top returning defenders include Mickel, Tony Barreras and Austin Bokish, plus Marrs, who averaged more than 40 yards per punt last year. Abingdon (5-5, 2-4) Under the direction of John Bowles, now in his third year, Abingdon has one of the more potent passing attacks in Southwest Virginia. That shouldn’t tail off any with the return of Jacob Hess at quarterback and Corey Spencer at wideout among Abingdon’s six returning offensive starters. The Falcons also boast a pair of impressive-looking offensive linemen in guards Clark Case (6-5, 223) and Joe Quetsch (6-5, 315). Abingdon is looking to make the playoffs for the first time in a few years, and is looking at a bright future as well, with 22 freshmen on the roster. Marion (5-5, 2-4) Brock Hanna will be sorely missed after rushing for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2008, but Matt Noe returns at quarterback, Brett Johnson is back at runningback and the Scarlet Hurricane could be improved on the offensive line. Grundy (1-9, 0-6) After averaging more than 10 wins per season in a four-year span, Grundy has fallen on hard times due largely to declining enrollment. Head coach Greg Rowe, now in his 23rd season at Grundy, is hoping to break a string of 19 straight district losses. The Golden Wave will rely on quarterback Jon Kelly, who passed for eight touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards last year as a sophomore. Cody Justus caught six of those TD tosses as a sophomore and will get help at wideout from Ben Rife. REGION IV Only three of the nine Division 4 teams will miss the Region IV playoffs this year. Magna Vista is on a slide of 20 straight losses and Hidden Valley appears to be a long shot as well. The division includes storied programs such as Pulaski County, Salem, Blacksburg and Bassett, and the Cavaliers’ first four games are against teams that finished among he top five in their respective divisions last year – Bassett, Patrick County, Christiansburg and Tazewell. Allen Gregory contributed to this story.