When the Graham boys’ soccer team loaded the bus this morning for an 11 a.m. departure for Onley, Va., The G-Men embarked on the trip of a lifetime.
The trip is quite special because of its purpose: to transport Graham’s coaches and players to the site of their very first VHSL State Championship game. 2D region champion Graham and 2A region champion Nandua are both undefeated. The stage is set for a classic 2021 season finale.
There is something else that makes Graham’s road trip even more special. This is the first time in many years that a high school sports team in Southwest Virginia has traveled the Commonwealth and Chesapeake Bay to compete in a state championship on opponent’s field.
When I started my career as a sports reporter in 1989, VHSL hosted the Group A, AA, and AAA boys basketball tournaments at University Hall at the University of Virginia. In other sports at the time, especially outdoor sports like football and baseball, state championships were rotated on the fields of given regional champions. Someone was invariably faced with a bear from a road trip, according to which half of the state had priority to welcome.
In early December 1995, the Powell Valley High School football team won another trip to the VHSL Group A, Division 2 State Championship game, which was to be played against Area A champion Northampton at Eastville , Virginia, which Rives about 30 miles south of Nandua High School. This competition would be the last high school football game for Powell Valley running back Thomas Jones, a VHSL Hall of Fame member who was nominated for the 2020 NFL Hall of Fame.
Jones was not within range to realistically surpass Terry Kirby’s VHSL speed record, but was in sight of Kirby’s career touchdown mark. Jones and his teammates must have made the attempt with a 500-mile bus ride under their belt. I made the same trip in a compact car. It was neither a bed of roses nor a pleasure cruise. Not even after his arrival.
It had recently snowed across the Chesapeake. The Northampton field was essentially a mud hole, so the VHSL decided to move the game to Nandua. The field there was also basically a mud hole. In an unheated press box, standing only, I watched one of the most talented high school running backs of all time eclipse Kirby’s TD record en route to a 36-6 victory over Northampton on a pitch where no state championship game should ever have been played at. It was kind of a shame. It was also quite beautiful.
I have covered many Virginia state championship football games over the years. Interestingly enough, the games I remember the most are the ones that were played on high school grounds. My memories of the trip to the east coast remain among the most vivid. So it will probably be with the Graham coaches, players and fans who are here today.
Considering the way the State Championships have been run over the past few decades, Graham’s football trip to seems to be somewhat unfair. It certainly presents a challenge for Graham’s players and coaches, not to mention the fans who are unable to make such a long trip on such short notice. This is possibly the longest VHSL State Championship road trip since the 1990s. Given that it was arbitrarily dictated by the circumstances of the pandemic, I guess it is an ordeal that never ends. will probably not repeat anytime soon.
Here is the observation of the half-full glass. Any appearance in a state championship game is a rare feat. This one is even rarer than most. I’d bet that crossing Chesapeake Bay to the east coast of Virginia is terra incognita for most Graham players and coaches. I made this trip: I assure you, the last stage of the crossing is quite impressive. This journey is truly more of a real adventure for the G-Men than for the Warriors, who simply occupy familiar surroundings while awaiting the arrival of an unknown opponent.
Nandua certainly has an advantage on the pitch today. But whatever happens, the Graham boys’ football team has already secured its share of bragging rights.
George Thwaites is sports editor for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Contact him at [email protected]