You'd think in Region I, encompassing an area north to King George near southern Maryland to south at Mecklenberg on the North Carolina border, Region I football playoff opponents would be unfamiliar with one another. Not so this year.
Grafton and King George, who meet in a Region I Division 4 first-round game Friday, are two hours apart, but they bridged that distance in a preseason scrimmage. Warhill will travel two-plus hours to the Fredericksburg area to face Courtland in another D-4 first rounder, but the Lions and Cougars are hardly strangers after meeting in last year's semifinals.
As for York and Poquoson, their Region I Division 3 first round game at Bailey Field on Friday marks the fourth time they've played in 13 months. York, which beat the Islanders at this stage a year ago, seeks its fourth consecutive win in the series.
While those three play, and Park View (8-2) hosts Brunswick (5-4) in another first round game, four teams drew first-round byes: No. 1 Chancellor (8-2) and No. 2 Smithfield (9-1) in Division 4, and No. 1 Lafayette (9-1) and No. 2 James Monroe (9-1) in Division 3. Below is a brief look at Friday's games.
NO. 6 GRAFTON (4-6) AT NO. 3 KING GEORGE (8-2)
Friday | 7:30 p.m. | King George High
Back when they scrimmaged King George, the defending region champion Clippers were ranked No. 4 in the state and favored to win the tough Bay Rivers. Injuries and five losses decided in the final seconds doused the high expectations.
Yet the Clippers got into the playoffs despite losing to York on Friday, because four other results fell as they needed. Record not withstanding, Grafton will be a dangerous team.
A big reason is that Harvard recruit Marcus Spearman is finally healthy, and a force offensively, as he demonstrated in catching four passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in the York game. Evan Sperling's rapid improvement as a passer and decision-maker since becoming the starting quarterback the past three games helps.
The Clippers will have to deal with the Foxes' spread, from which they've generated 31 points per game. Grafton's secondary, led by Spearman and fellow FCS prospect Jesse Santiago, will have its hands full with the passing of Foxes QB Corey Henderson (1,675 yards, 17 TD passes), but Clippers coach Jared Van Acker is confident.
"We might be 4-6, but we're the defending champs and we're excited about this opportunity," Van Acker said. "It's going to be tough to defend the title, but we feel we're up to the challenge."
NO. 5 WARHILL (6-4) AT NO. 4 COURTLAND (6-4)
Friday | 7:30 p.m. | Courtland High
A surprise playoff team a year ago, Warhill won a first-round game, then led Courtland by 10 points in the second quarter before falling 20-10. There are several reasons Warhill might be better positioned to win.
While Courtland, a playoff participant eight of the past nine years, is still plenty good, the Cougars are not as big in the trenches as a year ago. They are fast and aggressive, but the Lions have fared better against that type of front than against bigger opponents like Lafayette and York.
Warhill, as Courtland coach J.C. Hall acknowledges, has decent size on the lines, led by 6-foot-8 Virginia Tech recruit Parker Osterloh. And then there's Devonte Dedmon.
"He's their `Mr. Everything,' a heck of a player," Hall said.
Dedmon has rushed for 1,348 yards, passed for 297, has 19 receptions for 360 yards and accounted for 25 touchdowns and 14 two-point conversions. Courtland counters with the tried and true Wing-T it runs so efficiently, led by a quarterback (Eric Washington) Hall says is as good as any he's coached in 10 seasons with the Cougars.
NO. 6 POQUOSON (4-6) AT NO. 3 YORK (8-2)
Friday | 7:30 p.m. | Bailey Field
While York undeniably has had the better season, the Falcons won only 14-7 in the regular-season meeting, with a total offense advantage of just 234-231 yards. As those numbers indicate, defense has been the calling card for both teams.
York, however, is hitting its stride offensively. Austin Norman is as good as any quarterback in the district at running the option, particularly the past five games or so.
The Falcons big offensive line, with four players larger than 255 pounds, is becoming increasingly dominant. York ran for 312 yards last week against Grafton's tough defense en route to 434 total yards.
Poquoson counters with a nice inside-outside rushing combo from its Wing-T. Powerful Grayson Boyce and speedy Austin Turner have combined for 1,278 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. But, while the Islanders have often sustained long drives, they are scoring just 17 points per contest to the Falcons' 27.
"One of our biggest problems has been consistency," Islanders coach Elliott Duty said of his offense. "We've played well in spurts, but then we've played poorly."