RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The #8SportsBlitz returns FRIDAY August 26th with multiple big-time match ups like Highland Springs vs. Hermitage and Thomas Dale vs. Cosby. We’ve enlisted the help of RVAGameBreak’s Josh Mathews and Thomas Dozier to rank the Top 10 teams in Central Virginia. We’ve listed our reasons below each team.
10) Thomas Dale Knights
2015: 9-5, reached 6A state semifinal
First game: 08/26 @ Cosby
Why: The Knights would be ranked much higher if not for some major injuries at quarterback headed into the 2016 season. Thomas Dale lost senior returning starter Matt Lawton to a broken collar bone on the first day of hitting. He is not expected back until the Colonial Heights game on September 23rd, if then. His backup Gabe McCollin will also begin the season injured. That leaves Elijah Smith, who entered the season planning to play wide receiver, as the emergency quarterback. It’s a good thing the Knights can run. Head Coach Kevin Tucker has a three-headed monster in the backfield in Davonte Russell, Max Oxendine, and freshman Chris Tyree, who is already counting Division I offers despite never having played a varsity snap. If the Knights can get through their first three games (@ Cosby, vs. L.C. Bird, vs. Varina) at at least 1-2, they can make it back to the 6A playoffs. they reached the state semifinal in 2015.
9) Douglas Freeman Rebels
2015: 9-2, reached 5A playoffs
First game: 08/26 @ Midlothian
Why: The Rebels began 2015 9-0 before losing the final regular season game of the year at Hermitage and their first playoff game at home against Lee-Davis. Most of the 2015 team has returned for 2016, and that’s got folks in the near West End excited. Senior QB Trey Laughlin will lead a dual-threat spread attack that features multiple wideouts capable of making an impact. The majority of the offensive line returns as well. On defense, Nick Ackies will anchor the defensive line and be the scariest punter in the 804. The Rebels suffered a tragedy in August when rising junior Frank Woolwine passed away in a car accident. Laughlin says the team has used Woolwine’s death as a rallying point and that they are a closer team because of it. The Rebels’ weak point is depth. 5th-year Head Coach Mike Henderson has only 35 varsity players. As long as Freeman stays healthy, they have a shot at repeating their performance from 2015 and possibly taking it a step or two farther.
8) Lee-Davis Confederates
2015: 9-3, reached 5A playoffs second round
First game: 09/01 vs. J.R. Tucker
Why: The Confederates won a playoff game in 2015 and nearly toppled eventual state champion Highland Springs in the second round. Starting QB Chase Mummau is gone, and in his place steps sophomore Zach Lass. Most importantly, the Confederates return Nathan Evans, a smooth, athletic running back who has verbally committed to Richmond after de-committing from the Naval Academy. Three out of five lineman return in front of Evans, as well. After a breakout year, wide receiver Billy Kemp transferred to Highland Springs, so some as-yet-unknown talent will have to step up in the receiving corps. The defense is young and unproven as well, but third-year Head Coach Ryan Turnage believes the 2016 squad can be just as good if not better than the 2015 group.
7) Hanover Hawks
2015: 9-4, reached 4A state quarterfinal
First game: 09/02 vs. Dinwiddie
Why: The Hanover Hawks lose a lot from the 2015 team, including the entire offensive line, but it’s what returns that matters most. Quarterback Clayton Cheatham will remind you a little of Tim Tebow when you watch him. He is a dual threat running back and passer who can punish teams in either role. In addition to Cheatham, 12 of a possible 22 starters return on offense and defense for a team that won a playoff game in 2015. Head Coach Derek Stoudt is constantly seeking balance constantly seeking to avoid a one-man show on offense. That’s a smart strategy, as Cheatham has been sideline by injuries for much of the past two seasons. If the offensive line can protect him, Cheatham can throw as much as he runs and the Hawks can have that balance. If not, he may be looking at an injury-plagued senior campaign and a tough rebuilding year for the team as a whole.
6) Manchester Lancers
2015: 6-5, reached 6A playoffs
First game: 08/26 vs. Matoaca
Why: The Lancers were rebuilding in 2015 and injuries compounded that task. Freshman quarterback Brendon Clark tore his ACL in the fourth game of the season, and the Lancers tried a combination of converted wide receivers to replace him. That said, Manchester was still able to make it to the 6A playoffs with a 6-4 record. In 2016, Clark is back and so is his backfield mate Frank Boyd, who Head Coach Tom Hall says may be the fastest player he’s ever had in his 18 years of coaching at the school. The defense returns Elijah Connor, a four-year starter at safety, and Zayin West, who was an all-state defensive lineman as a junior. The offensive line is small but athletic and most of the starters have varsity experience. This should be a strong bounce-back year for the Lancers, unless injuries derail them again.
5) Hopewell Blue Devils
2015: 11-3, reached 3A state semifinal
First game: 09/01 vs. Tabb
Why: This is the year for the Hopewell Blue Devils. The program’s last state title came in 2003. 2015 was beyond expectations, and 13 of a possible 22 starters are back. That includes senior quarterback Cameren Hill and junior running back Ronnie Walker, who already has offers from Duke and Virginia. Head Coach Ricky Irby is aware of the expectations and has told his team to “Own it.” The 2015 team made it to the state semifinal game before bowing out to Lord Botetourt. That is the baseline expectation for the 2016 squad.
4) Hermitage Panthers
2015: 12-1, reached 5A state quarterfinal
First game: 08/26 vs. Highland Springs
Why: Doubt the Panthers at your own risk. Head Coach Patrick Kane has proven that if you don’t know the players’ names, it’s only because they’ve been stuck behind the names you do know. That may be the case with the 2016 Panthers, who lost the vast majority of the 2015 team to graduation. Jordan Hall will carry the load at running back, but most of the rest of the team is unproven…so far. The Panthers caused the most dissent among the group that made this rankings, and it’d all because of the lack of experience returning to the field. Neither Coach Kane nor Hall seemed worried, and after an early meeting with Highland Springs, we’ll see if that attitude (and this ranking) is justified.
3) Dinwiddie Generals
2015: 8-4, reached 4A playoffs, second round
First game: 09/02 @ Hanover
Why: “Loaded to the gills” is how Josh Mathews describes the 2016 Generals. Head Coach Billy Mills warned that his team was young heading into last season, but that team still reached the 4A playoffs and won a game. The majority of that team is back, including senior quarterback Bryce Witt and pass catcher (he’s both a tight end and wide receiver) K’Vaughan Pope, who made ESPN as a freshman by hurdling a tackler in a game. The defense was a weakness last season, but it will be a strength this year. Head Coach Billy Mills essentially had a perfect team in 2013, and the 2016 team has that kind of potential.
Read more about Dinwiddie from RVA GameBreak here.
2) L.C. Bird Skyhawks
2015: 11-1, reached 5A playoffs second round
First game: 08/26 @ Meadowbrook
Why: Not only does L.C. Bird return 17 out of a possible 22 starters on offense and defense, the Skyhawks are loaded with FBS talent on both sides of the ball. Jabaaru Wright is gone, and his polar opposite Shedrick McCall (verbally committed to Old Dominion) replaces him in the backfield. Wright was hard to bring down for his size, but McCall will be just plain hard to bring down. Bird does have a two-way quarterback competition to replace Jalen Elliott, though, so expect the Skyhawks to pound McCall up the gut early and often. On defense, there may not be a better linebacking duo in the state. Rayshard Ashby (verbally committed to Virginia Tech) is a four-year starter, and Isaiah Moore (verbally committed to N.C. State) will line up next to him. Basketball star Pinky Wiley will start at corner, and if not for a promising basketball career he could likely also get some attention to play college football somewhere. This is the first season since 2012 that Head Coach David Bedwell and company do not enter the season as the defending state champs. That makes them mad, and that is bad for every other team in the area.
1) Highland Springs Springers
2015: 14-1, 5A state champions
First game: 08/26 @ Hermitage
Why: Speed. Size. Experience. Will. Highland Springs has all of those qualities, and they have them in bunches. The Springers did lose some major talent in Greg Dortch (Wake Forest) and K’Von Wallace (Clemson), but they return some incredible talent as well. Mekhi Becton will be able to pick his major college program whenever he likes. The enormous left tackle will protect the blind side of Juwan “Pootie” Carter, who will start for a third-straight season. Carter has weapons in junior Billy Kemp (who transferred from Lee-Davis) and senior Chris Thaxton. Thaxton will play both ways and will hope to duplicate the success that Dortch and Wallace brought in 2015. Highland Springs will be there at the end in 5A with Hermitage, L.C. Bird, and others; the winner just may keep the state title in the 804 area code for the fifth-straight season.