Friday night lights are ready to be illuminated. Hopefully.
After one of the most unpredictable seasons imaginable that moved games from last fall to the abbreviated schedules that began in the freezing cold of February due to COVID-19, our standout “Big-11” squads are set to kickoff the latest 2021 campaign on August 27. Hopefully.
Unfortunately, we’ve already seen several hiccups with regional schools having to pause due to the COVID Delta variant rearing its head in their programs. Those have included Alleghany, Radford and Galax. So far, the “Big-11” has remained safe with just a week until the openers. Hopefully, that doesn’t change.
We’re back to the flashy summer attire to start the season rather than parkas and coats. Hopefully.
Here’s a look a the schedules and a few new traditions to expect as the season unfolds in the “Big-11.”
Our two Class-5 teams, Patrick Henry and William Fleming are raring to go after both made the playoffs in the spring. Alan Fiddler has had impressive teams at PH since his arrival on Grandin Road in 2011. Fleming has made one of the most dramatic turnarounds since the arrival of Jamar Lovelace as head coach, and the Colonels went all the way to the state semifinal in the spring. Lovelace has done things the right way and set the course both on and off the field and in the classroom.
The Patriots open with Brookville on the road in week-1, then take an open date before tackling a pair of Class-5 oppenents in Albemarle and Fleming in weeks 3&4 at Merrill Gainer Field. The Fleming contest has been moved to Saturday, September 18th, so expect a standing room only crowd for this shootout. PH takes on Hidden Valley and Cave Spring in successive weeks in October. After an away game against Christiansburg, the Patriots finish with a pair of Class-4 powerhouses in Pulaski County and Salem.
Fleming gets tested early with an opener against Heritage, followed by games at Albemarle, at home versus Salem, then the trip to PH. An open week is followed by Northside and Lord Botetourt on the road, with Class-6 Franklin County coming to Colonel Stadium on October 22. No breathers in this schedule.
The only “Big-11” Class-4 entry, the Salem Spartans, return after winning the Class-4 state championship in the spring. Can Salem win two football state championships in one year? Don’t count Don Holter’s guys out. Salem rarely waivers.
Salem opens at home against perennial West Virginia powerhouse Martinsburg. Two certainties here are a pair of talented squads and Salem Stadium’s traditional 50-50 raffle reaching four figures. Franklin County and Fleming follow, before Northside and a string of River Ridge opponents leading up to the regular season finale at home against Patrick Henry.
Class-3 teams lead the way in numbers in the “Big-11” with Lord Botetourt, Northside, William Byrd, Cave Spring and Hidden Valley. Botetourt is coming off a state final appearance in the spring, and expect another strong season for Jamie Harless’ Cavaliers. After taking on Class-4 members E.C. Glass and Blacksburg to open the season, the Cavs get tested big-time with games against Riverheads and Appomattox in weeks 3-4. A trip to Princeton, WV folllows before Blue Ridge games that will undoubtably include very interesting matchups with Byrd and Northside. Yes, I repeat, very interesting. Note that the trip to Blacksburg in week-2 has been moved to Thursday, September 2.
Northside will have an unique opportunity to open the season where the Vikings’ first five games include home dates against Pulaski County, Salem and Patrick Henry. Wins among those three could set the tone for Northside. Northside’s game at Cave Spring on week-2 has been moved to Thursday night, September 2 due to the conflict with the UNC-Virginia Tech game on Friday night.
Byrd opens with two home games, follows with a pair of winnable road games, then home games against Cave Spring and Botetourt. Three of the Terriers’ final four regular season games are on the road where their playoff hopes will probably be determined.
Cave Spring brings the only coaching change to the “Big-11”, with the debut of Nick Leftwich as head coach for the Knights. Likewise, one the biggest changes in traditions takes place when the historical regular season finale against Hidden Valley moves to the season opener for both at Dwight Bogle Stadium on August 27. Still, up for grabs will be the Paint Can Trophy that moved to Cave Spring in the spring for the first time in a decade after the Knights’ 17-14 win over the Titans. The Paint Can Trophy documents every game played between the two schools since Hidden Valley was spun off from Cave Spring in 2002, and the mystery remains as to what color paint originally occupied the can.
Hidden Valley, like Cave Spring, missed the playoffs in the spring. The Titans will have an extra-tough 3-game stretch in mid-season with Franklin County, Pulaski County and Patrick Henry in successive weeks. The regular season finale changes from Cave Spring to a road trip to Salem.
Glenvar, the only “Big-11” Class-2 member, takes on Class-1 Galax in week-1 and Class-1 Giles in the regular season finale. In between, Kevin Clifford’s Highlanders play back-to-back games against Cave Spring (Home) and Hidden Valley (Away), plus a Class-3 matchup against Carroll County. A Class-2 game against Martinsville in week-2 and their Three Rivers opponents in the second half of the campaign round out the Glenvar schedule.
Our two “Big-11” private schools, North Cross and Roanoke Catholic, should continue their recent success in the VISAA ranks. North Cross has scheduled a pair of VHSL schools in Eastern Montgomery and Giles, while Roanoke Catholic will take on VHSL Craig County. The big anticipated shootout between the Raiders and Celtics will take place Friday, September 17 (7:00 PM) at Vinyard Park. The only two common opponents will be Blue Ridge and Fishburne Military.
Returning in the fall wlll be the tradional Saturday afternoon Student Playback Game of the Week directed by the television broadcast students at Franklin County High School. VHSL Hall of Fame broadcaster Dave Ross, now in his 46th year of broadcasting games on television and radio in the Roanoke and surrounding areas, and 56 years total, will be joined by color commentator Steve Myers.
Set for weeks 1-4 are Martinsburg at Salem (August 28), Northside at Cave Spring (September 4), Salem at William Fleming (September 11) and Salem at Northside (September 18). Games air on CW5, Cox Channel 5, at times to be announced based on the Southern Conference Saturday Game of the Week.
The return of fans, student sections, cheerleaders and bands will be just as exciting as the game itself as high school football looks for the return to normalcy.
Fancy attire from student sections are the standard when games begin in the warm summer nights of August. (Bill Turner file photos).