The story of David and Goliath transpires in just one chapter in the Book of 1 Samuel, but Riverheads High School has turned it into a recurring series – and flipped the script into one where Goliath usually wins.
The Gladiators will vie for a seventh consecutive VHSL Class 1 state football championship this weekend, when George Wythe fills the role of prospective giant-slayer. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. Saturday at Salem Stadium.
The writers have done their best to keep things fresh: Riverheads (11-1) has a first-year head coach – albeit one who’s been a part of the program for five decades. The Gladiators also saw the nation’s longest winning streak come to an end back in September.
Meanwhile, the Maroons (10-3) are making their first appearance in the championship game since they won the Class A Division 1 crown in 2012, one of two state football titles in school history.
Ninth-year GW head coach Brandon Harner had taken his team to two previous state semifinals before this year’s breakthrough. Last Saturday, the Maroons avenged one of their three regular-season defeats in emphatic fashion, manhandling Grundy 35-12 on the road. (Another team that beat GW earlier this year, Graham, will face Central of Woodstock for the Class 2 championship in Salem at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.)
“I’m still at a loss for words,” Harner said of taking his team to its first state final in a decade. “It really hasn’t set in for me yet, and I don’t think it will until after the season concludes.”
On the other sideline, longtime defensive coordinator Ray Norcross took over the helm of the Riverheads program following the offseason retirement of Robert Casto, who won nine state titles and a total of 261 games across his storied 26-year tenure. The 66-year-old Norcross is no stranger to the Gladiators, having been involved with the program for 50 years dating back to his time as a player.
Riverheads hit at least one speedbump on its return trip to the season’s ultimate weekend. On Sept. 9, the Gladiators’ run of 52 consecutive wins – at the time, the longest streak in the country and tied with Hampton’s Phoebus High School for the all-time Virginia record – was snapped by Class 3 power Lord Botetourt, 35-21.
“The win streak probably meant as much to me personally, since I’m a Riverheads alum. I wanted Riverheads to have the record all by itself,” Norcross said. “For Riverheads to have that forever etched in the record books would have been a big thing for me.”
But there was no hangover for the Gladiators. Since that loss, they’ve reeled off nine consecutive victories – the first eight of which came by at least 20 points apiece. In last weekend’s state semifinal round, Riverheads bottled up a high-flying Essex team with a 21-8 win.
How has a small school sustained this kind of success for such a long period? It’s equal parts system and mentality.
Little-league teams in that section of Augusta County all utilize the same system – a combination of the old-school double-wing and wing-T offensive schemes – so kids have been running the same formations and plays for six or seven years before they join the varsity roster.
And success breeds success: Riverheads simply expects to compete for a state championship every season. The Gladiators, who will move up to Class 2 next year, haven’t lost to a Class 1 opponent since Galax beat them 7-6 in the 2015 state championship game.
“We used to laugh and say that Riverheads is full of 150-pound kids who think they’re 250,” Norcross said. “If you see our kids in street clothes, you’d think there’s no way in the world that those guys play football. It’s just that they believe in themselves… When they step out on the football field, they expect to win.”
Both squads look pretty darn good on paper. The Maroons average 265.6 rushing yards per game, led by 1,146 yards and 13 touchdowns from Ben Jollay. Quarterback Tandom Smith has thrown for 998 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for 883 yards and 14 more scores. Laden Houston (967 total offensive yards, 11 TD) and Leyton Fowler (800 rush yards, 9 total TD) add to GW’s options on the go side.
The Gladiators average 39 points per game and feature a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Cayden Cook-Cash (1,597 yards, 21 TD) and Luke Bryant (1,157 yards, 19 TD). Fullback Cody Cash has added 577 yards and eight scores; though Riverheads is known for its power running game, quarterback Bennett Dunlap has thrown for 423 yards and five touchdowns and found the end zone eight times on the ground. And the Gladiators’ defense is no slouch, yielding just 14 points per game this year.
But all that goes out the window on Saturday. Expect a raucous crowd at Salem Stadium: Riverheads always travels well – Gladiator fans can usually mark this date on their calendars months in advance – while Harner praised his school’s fan support during the Maroons’ postseason run.
“I hope the town [Wytheville] shuts down, and everybody comes,” the GW coach said.
So there are some new characters and new storylines. But will there be a plot twist at the end? The Maroons are certainly embracing their role as this season’s David.
“Anybody looks at this on paper, you’re going to say… that George Wythe is an underdog. There ain’t no doubt about that,” Harner said. “You’ve got to knock the team off the hill before you become the king.”