RICHLANDS, Va. – Ethan Phipps grew up with a dream. He wanted to play football for his beloved Blue Tornado.
Now that dream has just one chapter to go.
“I always grew up dreaming of wanting to play here and now it is here and now it has gone by,” said Phipps, a senior offensive and defensive lineman for Richlands. “The last three years, it is crazy. It just has went by so fast. I can’t believe it.”
A three-year starter on defense, and key part of an all-senior offensive line, Phipps knows how he would like his dream to finish.
“We would like to go all the way,” Phipps said. “I think we have the team to be able to do it and the heart. We are busting our butts to get there.”
So far nothing has happened to change Phipps’ perception of the Blues, who were 8-5 last season, falling in the Region 2D championship game to eventual state champion Graham.
That result has helped drive the Blues, who were in the Class 2 state championship game during Phipps’ freshman campaign in 2016.
“[Graham was] a real good team. We really just came up short there,” Phipps said. “We missed a few opportunities of it being a good game. At the beginning of the game we could have took over, we just missed opportunities and didn’t get a chance to.”
Nothing has occurred since then to make Phipps think they can’t finish the season in Salem.
“It is looking really solid,” Phipps said. “We are getting good work in and really just coming out here busting our butts every day and getting better every day. We are really coming together as a family and as brothers.”
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior is a key cog, both at left guard on offense, and tackle on either side of the interior line on defense. Both units will be key for the Blues in the season ahead.
“We have to be able to run the ball extremely well this year,” he said, “and stop the big play on defense.”
Phipps is one of five returnees on the offensive line, joining center Isaac Griffith, fellow guard Thomas Blankenship and tackles Dakota Ball and Luke Martin. Add the senior tight end duo of Hayden Whited and Colton Medley and these Blues should be potent in the trenches.
“It is looking real good,” Phipps said. “Everybody is used to working together and it is just coming right along. Nothing has changed, it is all just meshing right in back from last year. We are looking good.”
That bodes well for an offense that will be breaking in a new quarterback, either senior Cade Simmons, who hasn’t played since eighth grade, or sophomore Gavin Cox, who at 6-5 and 230 pounds looks like he could join Phipps on that interior line.
“They are both looking real well,” Phipps said. “Cade has got more experience than Gavin. Gavin is just young, he is maturing, he is really coming along and Cade is picking it back up from eighth grade and looking real well.”
Expect the Blues, who have become known for a prolific passing attack in recent years, to return a more balanced attack, taking advantage of that line by running the football with Logan Steele and Austin Newberry. When they do throw the ball, the receivers can catch it, including Will Tarter, Logan Altizer and Sage Webb, a sophomore who is already receiving Division I interest.
“They are looking real well,” said Phipps, who also played baseball for Richlands. “We are going to run the ball more than pass it this year.”
That all-senior offensive line is a big reason why.
“You don’t know how nice that is because the quarterbacks we love, they are doing a great job and they are growing every day, but you have to have that offensive line in front of them,” said Richlands head coach Greg Mance, who needs a win in the opener with Gate City on Aug. 30 to reach 200 wins for his career. “You can have great skill kids, but if you can’t block it don’t matter, you are going to struggle. You can’t run the ball. You don’t have time to throw it.
“I don’t care how good your receivers and running backs are, you have got to be good up front and we really like this group. From tackle to tackle, this could be one of the best lines we have had here in a long time so we are excited about what they are doing, how they have developed and looking forward to seeing if we can run the ball this year.”
There is plenty of optimism on the defense as well, led by Phipps and fellow three-year starter Luke Martin as interior lineman. Medley and Whited, who was an all-state second team defensive end last season, also returns, along with the entire secondary.
“Defense, we love Luke Martin and Ethan Phipps. They are fast, they are athletic, they are three-year starters, they are mean,” Mance said. “You have got Hayden Whited, a second team all-state defensive end returning over there, he is a player.”
So is the interior line of duo of Phipps and Martin, who Mance can describe in a few words.
“They are football players,” he said.
Phipps wants to keep playing football when his days in Richlands are through, and defense is where he would like to land.
“I just seem to excel better on the defensive side of the ball and I feel like my technique is better on defense than offense,” said Phipps, who is hoping to play football next at East Tennessee State University.
College football can wait. He is anxious for one more season playing for his dream team in a town that dreams of being Blues.
“I love it,” he said. “It is just great. The fan base, when we go to away games, there are more people there than the home team has, it is just amazing.”
He knows seats will be hard to find at Ernie Hicks Stadium in the season ahead, with testy homes games slated with Gate City, Abingdon, Radford, Graham and Virginia High.
“This place is always full,” he said, with a smile.