KINGSPORT — For some Northeast Tennessee football fans, Southwest Virginia can seem like an alternate universe.
Sullivan North coach Robbie Norris probably doesn’t go much for Star Trek jargon. But for him, ‘parallel universe’ is the more fitting description.
“We like playing Virginia schools. It means a lot,” said Norris, whose Golden Raiders (2-1) roll out the welcome wagon for Union (1-1) tonight.
“I love watching their film. You can see the crowd. Football is a very personal thing over there. And that’s a good thing,” said Norris, an unabashed admirer of Southwest Virginia’s gridiron culture.
In the wake of the Bears’ stunning 27-21 over Richlands last week, the caravan to Benny Compton Field ought to be substantial.
It won’t be the only crowded house Friday night on account of an interstate battle. Sullivan South (3-0) rumbles into Legion Field for a non-conference collision with Gate City (1-1).
Gate City coach Bill Houseright knows both programs boast distinct traditions. But their respective communities share some overlap.
“We have a lot of folks that work with each other and both groups are very supportive of their programs,” Houseright said.
“People talk football year-round, go to this game and then go back to work with one another. It makes it more fun.”
The Rebels’ offense is a conversation-starter. Quarterback Dylan Wieger and a flock of pass catchers have kept South’s passing reputation alive and well. Running back Blake Christian — who has rocketed off for more than 400 yards in three games — has tongues wagging about a breakout season in progress.
Another subject for discussion: the Rebels held Happy Valley to 24 yards total offense last week in a crushing 41-0 win.
“We take pride in that,” said South coach Sam Haynie, whose team blanked Gate City 49-0 last year. “Our defensive coaches do a good job teaching techniques and fundamentals. We’re starting to get a little swagger on defense.”
The Blue Devils offense suffered a setback when it lost Neth Gardner to a broken leg early in last week’s 42-21 win over Abingdon. Fledgling freshman quarterback Hunter Collier still has a strong supporting skill cast: Evan Baker, Robbie Hicks, soccer crossover Caleb Herron and, of course, surehanded big brother Michael Collier.
Gate City is young, enthusiastic and improving each week.
“We’re playing with quite a bit of passion and quite a bit of motor. I’d like to see us be a little more physical,” Houseright said. “South is a big challenge for us, We’re going to have to go out and play.”
Union coach Travis Turner knew about football teams like Norris’ Golden Raiders long before last year’s 41-17 loss to North.
“Watching North on film, they kind of remind me of an old Southwest Virginia team back in the 1990s,” said Turner, who played on one of them.
“They’re happy to gain three or four yards a carry. Their trick play is probably the counter-trap,” joked the Bears coach, who assesses the Raiders’ ground game — led by running back Jacob Jasper — as no laughing matter.
The Bears would be the last team to make light of North’s ball control tendencies. Union likes to cram RBs Mekyah Davis and Jake McCray down opponents’ throats whenever possible. But QB Tanner Hall surprised Richlands last week with 174 passing yards; 112 yards of it (and two scoring receptions) went to long-armed sophomore Jay Gavin.
“They are a much-improved team. They’ve got a lot of team speed. They run the old Dead-T, belly, kick-out, the leads — all the Tom Turner and Harry Fry stuff,” said Norris. “And then they’ll switch gears and go spread. They’re good at both things.”
Over at the two Bristols, another interstate rivalry is slated to erupt when Tennessee High (1-1) heads across town to take on Virginia High (1-1) at Gene Malcolm Stadium.
Elsewhere in Southwest Virginia, the tsunami that is Clintwood (2-0) is roaring toward Haysi (1-0); J.I. Burton (0-2) goes to Carl Smith Stadium to face oldest, newest rival Wise Central (1-1); Honaker (1-0) travels to Eastside (2-0) in a battle of early-season unbeatens; Thomas Walker (0-2. 0-0) endures the long bus ride to Castlewood (0-2. 0-0), and Patrick Henry (1-0) takes the scenic route to Twin Springs (0-2).