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Six state champions from 192 hopefuls, starting tonight

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ANALYSIS

By Craig Worrell, Sports Editor

Here we go.

After four weeks of preseason workouts, 11 Fridays, innumerable highs, lows and in-betweens, we finally get down to the nitty-gritty of the high school football season in Virginia, the playoffs.

Far more inclusive than even just a couple of years ago, the postseason will begin to whittle away the pretenders from the contenders in five weeks of eliminations culminating in the crowning of state champions in six divisions on Dec. 14.

It is a lot more difficult to miss the playoffs than to make it these days, with the new playoff format making room in the postseason for 192 of the state’s 307 football-playing schools (64 percent), 56 more than what made it three years ago and double the number of playoff teams in 2006. Compare that to an ultra-exclusive field of 24 teams – statewide, in all divisions –  in 1985.

One of the more intriguing matchups will happen in Wytheville tonight when Galax travels to George Wythe in a Region 1A West first-rounder, pitting the 2011 Division 1 state runner-up against the defending Division 1 state champion.

Not bad for an 8/9 game.

Up in Pearisburg, 2A West top seed Giles will host a Grayson County team that is better than its rating but got in by the skin of its teeth. It’s one of nearly a dozen 1 vs. 16 games that could be seen as a formality, were it not for history.

Tim Hayes of the Bristol Herald-Courier doesn’t mind poking through an archive or two, and posted the following tweet recently:

If Twitter been around in 1988: “Jonesville got in at 5-5 and has to go to Appalachia in the first round. That will be ugly.”

That’s saying a lot in 140 characters or fewer. Jonesville, it should be noted, would go on to win four straight playoff games by a total of 17 points (7-6, 7-0, 15-7 in OT and 21-20) and was the Division 1 state champion that year with a 9-5 record. 

Of note:

* There are still 12 undefeated teams remaining in the state, but five of them are seeded lower than No. 1.

* Stuarts Draft has the worst seed for a good record. A 7-3 mark got them only a No. 13 spot in 3A West as the top seven teams include a 10-0 and six 9-1s.

* On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Campbell (1-9) has the worst record of any team still playing but is nonetheless seeded higher than two teams in 1A East, including 3-7 Northumberland. Despite winning just one game – against an 0-10 team at that – William Campbell picked up enough points by simply playing in the extremely tough Dogwood District (Altavista, Gretna, Dan River et al) to keep its season alive.

* William Campbell is one of four teams in 1A East with a losing record, compared to one (4-6 Rural Retreat) in 1A West. Madison County (3-7) has the only losing record in 2A, east or west.

* Playoffs produce matchups that don’t happen in the regular season, but in 1A West and 2A West, first-rounders Rural Retreat at Fort Chiswell, J.I. Burton at Clintwood, Lee at Union, Graham at Richlands and John Battle at Gate City are all rematches from the regular season.

* Down east, Sussex Central at Surry is a rematch from just last week, while closer to home, Galax George Wythe lie just 45 minutes apart but haven’t met in football since 1993.

* One by-product of the new six-classification system is that it will reduce travel time for the early rounds. Or not. In 2A East, Arcadia faces a 291-mile, four-hour and  35-minute drive from the Eastern Shore to play at Riverheads. Forest Park (at PH-Roanoke), Pulaski County (at Courtland), Northumberland (at Altavista) and Bath County (at Honaker) all will be on the road for more than three and a half hours, while J.I. Burton should be home in time to catch the 11 o’clock news and highlights from its game at Clintwood, 25 miles and 32 minutes away.

So there you go. November’s version of March Madness will produce some incredible team and individual performances, some eye-opening upsets and more than a few blowouts. Should Grayson County or Galax win a first-round game, the quarterfinals will most likely send either to far Southwest Virginia. If so, heed one little bit of advice:

Never, EVER miss a chance to watch playoff football in the coalfields.