The Clarke County football team can’t win the Region 2B title tonight.
But there’s no question the Eagles will be the favorite to do so next week if it can top the region’s benchmark for excellence when they travel to Stuarts Draft for a 7 p.m kickoff.
Third-seeded Clarke County (10-1), the Bull Run District champion, will take on second-seeded and two-time defending champion Stuarts Draft (8-2) in the Region 2B semifinals.
The winner will advance to next week’s region final against Central or Strasburg, two teams that Clarke County has already beaten. But first, the Eagles have to figure out how to beat a school that they know from experience is a handful.
The Eagles hosted the Cougars in 2019 and lost 21-7. Stuarts Draft outgained Clarke County 303-157 and sacked the Eagles five times for a loss of 44 yards, resulting in a total rushing effort of 33 yards on 31 carries.
“We’ve been in big games, and they’ve been in big games, too,” said Eagles head coach Casey Childs of Stuarts Draft, which has fallen to Appomattox County in each of the last two Class 2 state title games. “We know what we’re getting ready for.
“It’s going to be a good one. I think two of the better teams in the state are seeing each other this week.”
In a phone interview, Cougars coach Nathan Floyd said it took some time for his team to find a rhythm, and understandably so. Stuarts Draft was shut down for a week in the preseason due to COVID-19 and only completed two games in the first weeks. The opener against William Monroe was never finished because of weather interruptions, Stuarts Draft picked up two forfeit wins because of COVID issues with their opponents, and the Cougars also had their regularly scheduled off week early in the season.
In Stuarts Draft’s six wins on the field, the Cougars have scored at least 40 points in five of them, with a low total of 28. Stuarts Draft defeated Luray 44-7 in last week’s quarterfinals, a team that the Eagles beat 14-0 on Oct. 28.
The only team to beat Stuarts Draft is five-time defending Class 1 state champion Riverheads (28-10 on Sept. 17 and 35-13 on Nov. 5). The only teams to beat the Cougars since the start of 2019 are state champions — Riverheads has beaten them four times in that stretch and Appomattox County twice.
Floyd said this year’s team returns more than half of its starters on both sides of the ball.
The most prominent among them is Aaron Nice. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound senior earned Shenandoah District Defensive Player of the Year honors (62 tackles) and is a First Team All-District selection for being the lead running back in Stuarts Draft’s shotgun wing-T offense. Nice has 118 carries for 945 yards and 19 touchdowns and 13 catches for 216 yards and three TDs.
“He’s extremely athletic, extremely strong and extremely explosive,” Childs said. “Offensively, he’s going to get downhill when he’s getting the ball. We can’t let him get a head of steam on us. We’ve got to get him before he gets rolling. And when he’s on defense, we have got to get a hat on him.”
Childs said there’s plenty of other things for Clarke County to contend with as far as Stuarts Draft’s offense. Senior Jayson Williams (6-foot-2, 295 pounds) is a First Team All-District selection on both offense and defense, and the Cougars also have a capable thrower in Landon Graber (37 of 67, 657 yards, seven TDs, three interceptions).
“They’ve got great wings for the off-tackle and misdirection stuff they do,” Childs said. “We’ve got to set the edge real well.
“They’ve got some size up front, but we’ve got some size, too. It’s going to be a good matchup in the trenches for our line and their line, for sure.”
Clarke County — which is coming off a 31-0 win over East Rockingham in last week’s quarterfinals — is allowing only 162.8 yards (108.5 rushing) and 6.4 points per game.
Clarke County’s defense includes defensive back Cordell Broy (25 tackles, four interceptions, 10 pass breakups), freshman linebacker Carson Chinn (88 tackles) and linemen Jeremy Burns (32 tackles) and Clay Welsh (30 tackles), who is 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds.
Childs said Clarke County’s offense can’t let Stuarts Draft’s defensive tackles get penetration.
“If we start allowing penetration, it really messes up our blocking schemes with pulling,” Childs said. “We’ve got to get our skill kids to the second level and get them on the perimeter where they can make plays. When we get our guys in space, we can do a lot of damage.”
Linebacker Troy Thompson leads Stuarts Draft with 80 tackles.
Clarke County is averaging 30.4 points and 292.6 yards per game. The Eagles are led by Bull Run District Offensive Player of the Year Kyler Darlington (181 carries, 1,236 yards, 6.8 average, 15 TDs), quarterback Matthew Sipe (70 carries, 455 yards, four TDs; 284 yards passing, five TDs, 3 INTs) and wingback Broy (458 total yards, eight TDs).
Floyd said he went back and reviewed the 2019 game against Clarke County to help with defending the single wing, which the Cougars don’t see often. He said Buffalo Gap has run it in the past, but not when they played this year.
“With the single wing and all the misdirection, our kids just have to trust and read their keys,” Floyd said. “Once they read their keys, we’ve got to swarm and get all 11 guys to the ball. You really can’t key on just one skill player, because they have them all over. You have to play good, sound, honest defense.”