With a district football championship on the line, the James River Knights were not going to overlook Craig County. The Knights scored twice on their first three plays and rolled to a 41-7 win over Craig last Friday in Buchanan, winning the Pioneer District championship.
With the win, Bath County did not win or share the Pioneer crown for the first time in 10 years. It was River’s first outright district football championship in 24 years, and this week the season continues with a trip to Fort Chiswell on Friday night for the first round of the Group A, Division 2 playoffs.
“We’re excited to be in the playoffs and Fort Chiswell is going to be a challenge,” said coach Philip King. “They’re probably the biggest team I’ve ever seen in high school football.”
Considering that King hails from Texas, where they grow ’em big, that’s saying a lot. But consider the Pioneers average over 300 pounds a man across the line, with a couple linemen in the 330-pound range.
“We were watching film and they had a kid standing next to a 330-pounder,” said King. “I didn’t think he looked real big, but we looked on the program and he was 280. They’re very big and physical, and they’re not just fat lards who stand there. They can move.”
The Pioneers are 9-1 playing out of the Mountain Empire District. As expected with a big line, they like to pound the ball and they have a stud running back in senior Chris Rodriguez.
“He’s big, strong and fast,” said King. “We’re going to have to find a way to contain him.”
The game should be a contrast in styles, as River will rely on the considerable skills of junior quarterback Jordan Talbott, who has shattered passing records at River this year. Last week against Craig, Jordan was 11 for 16 passing for 272 yards, giving him 2,099 passing yards for the season. He’s hit on 144 of 241 attempts for a completion percentage of almost 60 percent (59.8).
“People say our district is weak, but a lot of those yards came against tough non-district teams,” said King. “I can’t say enough about how important he is to our team. He’s also a starting linebacker, but we pull him out of there when the game is under control. Plus he’s our punter, he holds for place kicks, and he’s a great team leader. He’s the cog that makes everything go.”
Against Craig, the game was over by halftime as the Knights jumped to a 34-0 halftime lead. Ian Johnson opened the scoring on a seven-yard run, then Jeff Johnson caught a 41-yard TD pass from Talbott. When Ian Johnson scored again to make it 21-0 early in the second quarter, the writing was on the wall.
“When it was 21-0, K.W. (King’s son) came over to me and asked me if I was relaxed now,” said King. “I told him there was still time on the clock, and in football anything can happen. You don’t take anything for granted.”
King harped on that all week in practice, especially after Craig County coach Mark McPherson indicated he felt his team was being taken for granted when the Knights were shown celebrating on a local TV highlight show after beating Bath County.
“I don’t know where he got that idea, but we never took Craig County for granted,” said King. “The kids worked hard all week. They knew we weren’t going to the playoffs without winning this game.”
River had a lot of standouts in the win over Craig. Jeff Johnson had five catches for 139 yards and two TDs, while Chris Ware had three catches and K.W. King had two for 86 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown. Brandon Garrett led the rushers with 56 yards, Ian Johnson had three scores among his 46 yards, and Talbott had 42 yards, giving him a team-high 488 yards rushing for the season.
On defense, Talbott and Jonathan Falls had seven tackles each, Jordan Brogan had two sacks, and Ware had an interception. The defensive numbers were somewhat low as the clock ran continuously for most of the second half, and the Rockets didn’t score until it was 41-0 and late in the game.
This week, it won’t be as easy. River, at 5-5, comes in as the sixth seed in the Region C, Division 2 playoffs while Fort Chiswell is seeded third. If the Knights win they’ll go to second seeded Chilhowie next week.
George Wythe is the top seed in the region. The Maroons will host the winner of a Friday game between Giles and Radford, at Radford, this week.
Two Pioneer teams are in the Division 1 playoffs. Bath County is the third seed and will host Narrows, while Covington is the fourth seed and will host Rural Retreat. Narrows and Rural Retreat are both 3-7 on the season, so River has, by far, the toughest opponent among the three Pioneer playoff teams.
“We’re just glad to be in the playoffs,” said King. “It’s really just now sinking in. This has been great for the program and great for the kids, and they’ve worked hard for it.”