The G-Men’s special teams accounted for 15 points, a defensive play set up another touchdown and the defending VHSL Class 2 champions claimed their second straight Region 2D football championship with a 43-14 win over Wise Central at Mitchell Stadium.
“It’s a third of the game,” Graham coach Tony Palmer said of special teams play. “You can win or lose games with special teams and we were fortunate enough to play well today with special teams in bad weather. We’re real proud of our guys.”
Placekicker Danny Dales had two field goals, of 26 and 23 yards, for the G-Men (11-2).
Graham also added a safety on special teams when an errant snap on a Central punt went over the head of punter Noah Bolling and into the end zone. A mad scramble resulted in the ball being knocked out of the back of the end zone, putting two more points on the scoreboard for Graham.
G-Men special teams accounted for a touchdown just after a Dales field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Xayvion Turner stripped the ball from the Central kick returner at the Warriors’ 15-yard line and sprinted into the end zone.
Graham’s defense set up a touchdown on the last play of the third quarter when Isaiah Justice intercepted a Central pass at the G-Men 21 and returned it all the way to the 1 before being brought down. On the first play of the fourth quarter — one play after Justice’s interception return — Graham’s Treveese Booker got into the end zone for the last score of the game.
WHAT A RUN
The interception was the last of three turnovers committed by Central, and all of them led to points for Graham.
“That happens,” said Warriors coach Luke Owens, whose team is comprised primarily of sophomores with just a handful of juniors and seniors.
“I’m proud of my kids. We’ve got a bunch of young kids and hopefully we’ll be back in this situation next year.”
Central (10-3) compiled the best record in school history, earned the program’s first postseason win and made its first appearance in the regional championship game.
THE REAL DEAL
Graham quarterback Devin Lester lived up to the hype.
The Old Dominion signee completed 6 of 12 passes for 81 yards in a game that was marred by pouring rain for most of the day. Lester also rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries.
Graham’s first drive of the game was perhaps its most impressive.
Lester connected with Marqus Ray for a 50-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage to move the ball to the Central 15. Two plays later, Lester raced into the end zone from 2 yards out to put the G-Men ahead early.
Graham tacked on 17 more points in the opening half, including a 15-yard run from Lester with 6:57 to play in the second quarter that staked the G-Men to a 24-0 advantage.
Central did not surrender without a fight. The Warriors moved the ball 89 yards in the waning minutes of the second quarter. Ben Brickey caught a tipped pass from quarterback Ethan Mullins and sprinted to the end zone for Central’s first score.
Then on Graham’s next drive, Central recovered a fumble at the G-Men 6-yard line.
Mullins connected with Tyson Tester for a 3-yard touchdown to cut the Graham lead to 24-14 before halftime.
“Our kids fought after being down 24-0. A lot of teams would have gone belly up. But we didn’t do that. We fought. I thought we fought the whole ballgame and I’m proud of my kids,” Owens said.
In the second half, Graham’s defense took control.
“They’re a scrappy bunch. Hats off to them. Their kids played hard,” Palmer said of the Warriors. “There’s a reason they knocked off the two top seeds (Ridgeview and Union) in the region. Coach Owens does a great job with those guys.”
As far as his defense giving up the two scores late in the first-half, Palmer said, “We told them at halftime that if (Central) didn’t score any more points they wouldn’t beat us. They took that kind of personally.”
GRAHAM ADVANCES TO STATE PLAY
Graham will travel to Appomattox County next weekend for their VHSL Class 2 semifinal.
The other Class 2 semifinal game will pit Thomas Jefferson against Stuarts Draft.