BIG STONE GAP, Va. – The players and coaches from the 1994 Appalachia High School state championship football team were honored at halftime Friday at Bullitt Park.
Those rugged fellows, who favored a ground-and-pound offense, must have loved what they saw in the second half from the home team.
Relying on power-based running game, the Union Bears earned a 26-3 victory over the Richlands Blue Tornado.
“We showed a lot of similarities to that 1994 team,” said Union coach Travis Turner, whose late father Tom coached that legendary squad. “Our guys blocked well, our backs ran hard and the support of our fans was huge. This is an awesome place to play.”
Following a sloppy first half that featured 12 penalties and a 37-yard field goal by 6-foot-6 all-state selection Levi Forest from Richlands, the second half belonged to Union.
One sequence told the story.
After Forrest missed a 41-yard field goal attempt with 7:36 left in the third quarter, Union put together a 10-play scoring drive that culminated with a 1-yard scoring plunge by senior Mason Polier with 11:56 left in the game.
Union relied on nothing but quick pitches, lead and dive plays on the old-school march.
“Our defense played great, and we just kept on punching [Richlands] in the mouth on offense. It was all power,” Polier said.
Polier, who combined with fellow linebacker C.J. Jones for over 16 tackles, finished with 96 yards rushing on 20 carries as he seemed to gain strength in the fourth quarter.
“Repetition in practice and stamina pays off on nights like this,” Polier said.
Speedy sophomore Zavier Lomax supplied 59 yards rushing on 12 carries for Union while senior Bryce Guerrant added 34 yards and 4-yard scoring run on nine carries. Polier, Lomax and Guerrant also supported each other with blocks.
Union, which featured a three-back set in its new-look offense, attempted just two passes. That was just fine with Turner.
“We couldn’t do anything together in the first half, but then we got a little confidence and kept the momentum,” Turner said. “We knew that we going to be kind of limited on offense early in the season, and our coaches did a good job getting the guys ready.”
Not much worked for the Richlands offense. In addition to misfiring on three field goals, the Blues were intercepted three times.
Senior safety Antwun Jenkins terrorized Richlands by intercepting two passes and blocking a field goal with 7:18 left in the game. After Jenkins returned the ball to the Richlands 10-yard line, Polier gave the Bears a 13-3 advantage with another 1-yard blast at the 6:02 mark.
Jenkins credited a week of film review for his starring performance.
“I noticed some things with my teammates and coaches, but I’ve never had a game like this,” said Jenkins, who wore the large Union turnover chain after the game. “I had two older brothers play for Union and they always told me that I could reach their level if I blocked a field goal.”
Richlands coach Greg Mance was frustrated with the work of his defense in the second half.
“We got tired and started watching the ball instead of attacking,” Mance said. “After that it was like piranhas in the water. Union smelled blood and got after us, and we never stopped them. We’ve just got to get tougher.”
Richlands played without senior playmaker Logan Altizer (knee injury) while senior slotback Will Tarter left the game early due to a pulled hamstring.
“We were a little shorthanded, but that’s no excuse,” Mance said. “We controlled the first half and Union completely dominated the second half.”
The offensive highlights for Richlands were created by 5-11 sophomore Sage Webb. After being hounded by the Union secondary in the first two quarters, Webb was moved to the backfield in the second half and responded with 80 yards rushing on 14 carries.
That was not enough for the Blues to overcome their offensive breakdowns and missed tackles.
Linemen such as guards Carson Ray and Ethan Church, tackle Trevor Wagner and freshman center Zach Hall led the way for the physical Bears.
“We’re not sharp and we’re not in shape, and that’s my fault,” Mance said.
Meanwhile, Union is eager for more old-style Southwest Virginia football.
“We like to pound the ball up into the line,” Polier said. “Coach Turner has used that style for years. And that’s kind of what we live by here.”
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Richlands 3 0 0 0-3
Union 0 0 0 26-26
R- Forrest 37 FG
U – Polier 1 run (Crist kick)
U – Polier 1 run (kick failed)
U – Guerrant 4 run (Crist kick)
U – A. Jenkins 35 interception return (kick blocked)
First Downs: R 10, U 11; Rushes-Yards: R 33-126, U 45-140; Passing Yards: R 111, U 8; Comp-Att-Int.: R 13-20-3, U 1-2-0; Fumbles-Lost: R 0-0, U 0-0; Penalties-Yards: R 8-40, U 5-45; Punts-Average: R 2-49, U 3-36.