By Cam Huffman
PATH TO POSTSEASON
Standing at 3-3 with an open week on the schedule, the Grizzlies were at a crossroads. They’d played fairly well in wins over Poca (27-7), East Fairmont (25-7) and Clay County (26-18), but one of their losses came to Class A Greenbrier West and the other two weren’t even close.
Nicholas County was blown out on a Thursday night at home against Oak Hill, losing 40-0, and two weeks later it went to Harrison County and dropped a 31-7 decision at Robert C. Byrd.
But the Grizzlies’ play in the three weeks following the bye are what defined their season.
They came out firing in a 49-8 thrashing of Lincoln County and kept the momentum going with a win on the road over another playoff team, River View. That 28-14 win was followed by a 42-23 pounding of Mingo Central, and Nicholas County found itself at 6-3 after an impressive three-game winning streak.
“It’s about confidence and communication,” said Nicholas County head coach Gene Morris. “We’ve progressed each week and gotten better as a football team. We’ve tried to improve on the things we didn’t do well and make sure that everybody is comfortable.”
The regular season finale against county rival Richwood had to be canceled, because snow covered both teams’ home fields and power was out throughout much of the county.
So the Grizzlies had to settle for a 6-3 regular season record and a No. 9 seed in the Class AA playoffs.
Head coach Mike Dawson’s Rebels didn’t get off to a great start, losing two of the first three to St. Mary’s (24-15) and Clay County (25-7), with a win over Roane County sandwiched between them. But since then, Ritchie County has been difficult to beat.
The Rebels followed their 1-2 start with a string of five straight victories, knocking off Braxton County (28-12), Doddridge County (24-14), Ravenswood (15-12), Lincoln (35-27) and Tyler Consolidated (19-6) to improve to 5-2.
Williamstown finally ended the Ritchie County run with a 38-16 victory, but the Rebels finished the year with a bang, knocking off Grafton 63-13 to finish 7-3 and claim a first-round home game with the No. 8 seed.
WHAT’S ON THE LINE?
The “reward” for a victory in tonight’s game could be a trip to face No. 1 Wayne. The defending Class AA champs host No. 16 Clay County tonight, and the winner moves on to face the Ritchie County-Nicholas County winner.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tyler Sagraves, QB/DB — In the last two games, the junior has thrown for 195 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 101 yards and three more scores. Perhaps more importantly, Sagraves has moved into the lineup as a defensive back and has been huge for the Grizzlies in slowing opponents’ passing games.
Will Mayes, RB — To win regularly in high school football, especially in the playoffs, a team has to be able to establish the run. Mayes, a speedy sophomore, gives the Grizzlies their best opportunity on the ground. He also has good hands and is a threat out of the backfield in the passing game.
Trevor Shepler, QB — The 6-foot senior threw for more than 1,000 yards and tossed 12 touchdowns, compared to just seven interceptions this season.
Dylan Frye, WR — A little undersized at 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds, the junior makes up for his small stature with his speed and reliable hands. He leads the team with 33 receptions for 486 yards and six touchdowns and has caught at least two passes in every game this season.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Although the Grizzlies have some exciting skill players on offense, they’ve really won with defense. In their six wins, they’ve allowed just 12.8 points per game. That’s a winning formula, because it’s difficult for almost any team to hold Nicholas County under two touchdowns.
Keeping up those defensive numbers, though, might not be easy against a Ritchie County team that’s scored more than 32 points per contest in its seven wins. The Rebels have a balanced attack that keeps defenses guessing. The mix in the run and the pass and keep fresh bodies on the field at tailback and wide receiver.
“They’re a pretty balanced team,” said Morris. “They’re kind of conventional, under center a lot more than they’re in the gun.
“They’re a pretty good football team, and they wouldn’t be No. 8 if they weren’t.”
Morris said the game, like most high school contests, will likely be decided in the trenches.
“It’s like every football game, we’ve got to control the line of scrimmage and do the fundamental things properly,” said the head Grizzly. “We think if we do that, we’ll be OK. We feel like if we take care of our business and do the things that we do, we’ll be fine. What we’ve done has gotten us to this point, and we’re going to see if it can keep us going.”
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Nicholas County not only missed a game last Friday, it also missed a week of practice. With schools closed and the field covered in white, the Grizzlies weren’t able to get on the field all week.
They were back at it Monday night, though, and Morris is confident his team will be ready to play.
“They’re really looking forward to it, and they’re excited about being back in the playoffs,” he said, admitted that his players had to shake off a little rust after a stressful week away from the field. “Overall, I think they’re responding very well.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH