WISE, Va. – For Wise County Central running back C.J. Crabtree, football is a matter of family and pride.
“I grew up around the game and loved it from the first day,” Crabtree said.
Chris Crabtree, C.J.’s father, was a standout pulling guard and defensive end at the former J.J. Kelly High School. He later spent a pair of three-year head coaching stints at Ervinton and Pound before resigning to coach his son’s youth team.
As Chris conducted practices, watched film and formulated game plans, C.J. listened and learned.
“I always spent my evenings with dad at his practices,” C.J. said.
When C.J. joined a flag football team at age six, Chris shared knowledge with his most eager student.
“My father helped me tremendously by offering support and giving me advice,” Crabtree said. “I’ve never met anyone who understands the game better than dad.”
The younger Crabtree has learned his lessons well.
Entering Saturday’s Region 2D title game at defending state champion Graham, the 6-foot, 170-pound junior has accounted for 1,828 yards rushing with an average of 8.8 yards per carry.
With Crabtree serving as the centerpiece of Central’s Wing T offense, the youthful Warriors (10-2) defied the odds en route to securing the first home playoff game and first playoff win in school history.
“The best part of the season has been the upsets,” said Crabtree, who scored 19 touchdowns in the regular season. “The odds have been against us several times, and we have come out on top.”
Central (10-2) is the underdog against a balanced Graham (10-2) squad that will be playing on its home turf Saturday at Mitchell Stadium. Game time is 2 p.m.
While Graham posted a 14-1 record last season behind record-setting quarterback Cam Allen, the Warriors won four just games before falling 49-14 at Ridgeview in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Warriors relied heavily on freshmen and sophomores in 2018. So did that trial by fire set the stage for the current playoff run?
“Absolutely,” Crabtree said. “We all had to grow up very quick and continue to build on previous seasons. Every player stepped up as an individual and we each took on accountability.”
Central’s path to Mitchell Stadium has featured some road blocks.
After opening the season with wins against Eastside and Lebanon, the Warriors lost two-way star Maddox Reynolds to a knee injury in a 41-20 setback against Ridgeview. Reynolds has only recently been able to return to action.
“Losing Maddox was a tough blow not only because he is exceptionally athletic, but he also was a leader on the field,” Crabtree said.
With Reynolds out, sophomore Matthew Boggs (558 yards rushing) and junior Noah Bolling (537 yards) accepted larger roles.
“I’m very proud of Matt and Noah for stepping up and moving into new positions while learning this new offense,” Crabtree said.
That potent Wing T attack also includes sophomore quarterback Ethan Mullins (498 yards rushing, 748 passing) and sophomore Matt Peters, who has rushed for 412 yards.
“The Wing T works perfect for us because we have speed and so many threats in the backfield,’” Crabtree said. “We’re able to keeps defenders on their toes and use fakes that are difficult to defend.”
Junior receiver Ben Brickey has added 12 receptions for 417 yards and four scores.
The Graham defense features linebackers Aaron Edwards and Nick Kastner, a pair of physical seniors who combined for 13 tackles in a 31-9 decision over Goochland in last year’s Class 2 title game
Central hopes to keep the Graham defenders guessing.
“All of our backs are very athletic and we’re lucky to have some great linemen blocking for us,” Crabtree said.
Since a 42-19 setback at Abingdon on Oct. 4, Central has rushed for at least 246 yards en route to seven straight victories.
“We’ve gained confidence with each win, and I think that’s important for a team this young. It’s only made us hungrier,” Crabtree said.
The Warriors were able to galvanize their community last Friday in a 14-7 decision at Ridgeview. That scrapbook-worthy evening began with a police escort through Wise and ended with a wild celebration on the fog-covered Ridgeview field atop Rose Ridge.
“It was definitely interesting to play in that kind of weather, but there was nothing like the feeling after the win,” Crabtree said “It felt great to have the support of our community before the game. And to have our fans all come onto the field was insane. It’s one of those nights that make football worth all of the bruises.”
Crabtree credits Central head coach Luke Owens for providing the right mix of training, strategy and motivation.
“Our school is lucky to have Coach Owens,” Crabtree said. “He understands how important it is to be physical all four quarters, and he is extremely knowledgeable about the sport.”
Since those first days in flag football, Crabtree has been a running back. He scored two touchdowns as a freshman starter two years ago as the Warriors won only two games.
“One of my favorite aspects about being running back is the physicality of the position,” Crabtree said. “I like to play fast and physical.”
Last season, Crabtree collected 1,033 yards and 11 scores despite playing with a broken wrist for half the season.
“There’s not much that will stop me from playing the game,” Crabtree said. “Thankfully, God has blessed me with good health this season. I had no idea this season would end up like it has, but I owe it all to God.”
Crabtree is also eager to pay back his father for the years of nurturing and love.
“At halftime of every game, I meet my dad outside the locker room doors and he talks to me about the game and how I can improve in the next half,” Crabtree said.
“I feel pressure in the sense that I want him to be proud of how our name and reputation is carried down through my actions.”