BLUEFIELD, W.Va. - All the momentum was pointed toward Wise County Central. Graham quickly took it away.
“Central had the momentum going into the second half,” Graham senior quarterback Devin Lester said. “I feel like when we came out we knew that we had to get our momentum back to win this game.”
They did just that, scoring 19 unanswered points after the break to defeat the Warriors 43-14 to claim the Region 2D championship on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Mitchell Stadium.
“They are a scrappy bunch. Hats off to them, the kids played hard, man, they really get after it,” Graham head coach Tony Palmer said. “There is a reason why they knocked off the top two seeds in the region. Coach [Luke] Owens does a great job with those guys.”
Up next for the defending Class 2 state champions is a visit to Appomattox County next Saturday in a semifinal contest.
“We have just got to cut down on penalties and we have to watch a lot more film,” Graham senior linebacker Nick Kastner said. “They are a good ball club, but I think we can go down there and get the win. Last year we made it this far. We expect to go to state again.”
Wise Central (10-3), which defeated Richlands and Ridgeview for its first playoff wins in school history, fell behind 24-0, rallied to within 24-14 at the break, but there were just too many mistakes for the sophomore-dominated club.
“Going into a game like this, we just can’t make mistakes,” Wise Central head coach Luke Owens said. “We made far too many for a football team like that. That is an awfully good football team we just played, they are the defending state champs for a reason.”
Graham (11-2) wasted no time showing off its high-octane offense, with Lester connecting with Xayvion Turner for a 50-yard completion on the first play of the game.
“It wasn’t the prettiest pass, but I think we have really good receivers to make plays on the ball,” Lester said.
Lester followed with runs of 13 and 2 yards for the score and Joey Dales made one of his four extra point kicks to put the G-Men up 7-0. Wise Central drove the ball to the Graham 22, but turned it over on downs.
Outside of a couple of plays after that, the Warriors didn’t get much else in the game, finishing with 145 total net yards.
“We watched a lot of film all week. We just knew what was coming whenever they came out on the field. They motioned a little bit, we knew it was coming,” Kastner said. “We just started playing our game. They had a couple of big plays, they had one big pass play, but when they ran the ball we really didn’t give up much.”
Wise Central was able to hold the G-Men to a 26-yard Dales field goal on the opening possession of the second quarter, but quickly surrendered another score when Turner - the son of former Graham, Marshall and NFL standout Ahmad Bradshaw - stripped Noah Bolling of the ball on the ensuing kickoff and ran 17 yards for a touchdown and the 17-0 lead.
“That is a third of the game. You can win or lose games on special teams,” Palmer said. “We were just fortunate enough to play well today on special teams in bad weather so we are real proud of our guys.”
Tre Booker would follow by deflecting a Wise Central punt, and Lester connected with Dales for 13 yards and then dashing 15 yards to go up 24-0 with 6:37 left in the half.
“We just had too many mental errors, but our kids fought and clawed our way right back into that thing after being down 24-0. A lot of teams would have just turned belly up, but we didn’t do that,” Owens said. “We fought. I thought we fought there to the end. I am proud of my kids. We have got a lot of young kids and hopefully we can be back in this situation next year.”
Wise Central finally got a big play on an Ethan Mullins pass to Ben Brickey, who turned it into a 71-yard touchdown. Maddox Reynolds followed on Graham’s next possession by knocking the ball loose from Lester, with Austin Eldridge recovering at the Graham 6.
Three plays later, Mullins connected with Tyson Tester for the 3-yard touchdown, trimming the margin to 24-14 with 1:03 left until halftime.
“I felt like we put them in the game. We had a busted coverage and we turned the ball over. Those are mental mistakes and things we can control,” Palmer said. “We have got to be more cerebral when it comes to things like that and try not to let things like that happen.
“Halftime we told them if they don’t score no more they won’t win so our guys took that personal and went out and answered the bell.”
It was all Graham after the break, with Dales connecting on a 23-yard field goal after Zach Blevins recovered a Wise Central fumble at the 13. Blevins followed by tackling the Wise Central punter in the end zone for a safety. The G-Men added scores on a 16-yard run by Lester and a touchdown plunge from Booker, one play after Isaiah Justice returned an interception 81 yards to the 1-yard line.
Any hope of a Wise Central comeback was nullified by a stingy Graham defense, led by the linebacker trio of Kastner, Blevins and Aaron Edwards.
“It is a senior dominated bunch. They fly around,” Owens said. “I thought the linebacker play was very good. Both of those two middle linebackers are as tough as they can be. They have probably got a really good shot at winning this thing again. Hats off to them, they were the better team today.”
Graham did commit 12 penalties for 132 yards, something which will have to change next week.
“We just have to stay focused. We can’t get off our game like we did today,” said Lester, who ran for 99 yards and threw for 80 more. “I think we need to play the whole game next week like we did in the second half and we will be fine.”
Wise Central was led by Mullins with 74 yards passing and 43 yards rushing from CJ Crabtree, although the Warriors were held to a net-71 yards on the ground, averaging less than two yards per carry.
“To win 10 ball games and make it to the third round in the playoffs, that is pretty special, especially when we hadn’t ever won a playoff game,” Owens said. “Hopefully we can get the ground running here and get a great preparation for the 2020 season.
“I am proud of our kids. That is the message I have got for them. We have just got to get back to the drawing board, we have got to get better as a coaching staff, we have got to get better as players and hopefully we can be right here last year.”
Graham, which won its second straight Region 2D crown, will be facing Appomattox County, which had won the previous three Class 2 state championships before the G-Men took the mantle last season.
“Appomattox is a very good team. I watched them last night,” Palmer said.. “We are going to have to have our best effort to win.”
Wise County Central 0 14 0 0 - 14
Graham 7 17 12 7 - 43
GR - Lester 2 run (Dales kick)
GR-Dales 26 field goal
GR-Turner 17 fumble return (Dales kick)
GR-Lester 15 run (Dales kick)
WC-Brickey 71 pass from Mullins (Daniels kick)
WC-Tester 3 pass from Mullins (Daniels kick)
GR-Dales 23 field goal
GR-Blevins, tackles punter in end zone
GR-Lester 16 run (Dales kick)
GR-Booker 1 run (Dales kick)
First downs: WC 10; GR 11. Rush-yards: WC 37-71; GR 39-174. Pass yards: WC 74; GR 80. Comp-Att-Int: WC 3-7-1; GR 7-13-0. Fumbles-Lost: WC 2-2; GR 4-1. Penalty-yards: WC 5-31; GR 12-132. Punts-Avg: WC 4-25.2; GR 2-44.0.