The James River football team saw the season come to an end with a 35-2 loss to the Gretna Hawks in Gretna last week. The game was played on Thursday to avoid predicted rainstorms on Friday.
This was the “four-five” game in the eight-team Class 2C VHSL playoffs, with Gretna getting to host as the fourth seed. While theoretically the four-five game is expected to be the most competitive of the four, the River score doesn’t indicate that. However, Knights coach Jacob Phillips feels the game was a lot closer than the score indicates.
“The final score is not indicative of how close the game was,” said Phillips. “We were only down 14-2 at the half and they tacked on a couple of late touchdowns that made it look worse than it was.”
Big plays hurt the Knights. Gretna struck first on a 65-yard run on their first series of the game and led 7-0 after the first quarter.
The Knights punted the ball to the Gretna one yard line in the second quarter, and a bad snap resulted in a safety to make it 7-2. River then took the ensuing kick and drove to the Gretna 11 where they were stopped on fourth and short.
“We couldn’t punch it in when we had to,” said Phillips. “Every drive we had a handful of first downs but we couldn’t finish it off. We had more plays in the first half than they did.”
A 51-yard pass play late in the half, after a bad snap, gave the Hawks a 14-2 lead at intermission. Then, a 46-yard run in the third period made it 21-2 after three quarters. River was still in striking distance at that point, but the Gretna defense proved to be too tough to penetrate.
“We had to go for it on fourth down a few times in the second half and we didn’t have much success,” said Phillips.
Stat-wise, River ran 63 plays to 40 for Gretna and won the time of possession, 28 minutes to 20. However, the Hawks were able to shut down the Knights rushing attack when needed, holding River to 96 rushing yards on 43 carries. Meanwhile, the Hawks had 323 rushing yards on 37 carries, and the long runs hurt River.
“They broke a few long ones,” said Phillips. “When they got in the open there was no catching them.”
Of the Hawks’ 372 total yards, 220 of them came on their five scoring plays. Gretna scored on runs of 65, 46, 15, and 43 yards, and a broken play pass of 51 yards. The Hawks tallied just 152 yards on the 35 non-scoring plays.
Coulter Hodges led the rushing for River with 47 yards, and he also completed eight of 19 passes for 104 yards. Deacon Paivanas had four catches for 59 yards, River Clonch had three for 18 and Kevin Austin had one reception for 27 yards.
River had three turnovers, which was uncharacteristic of the team. They lost two fumbles, their first two lost fumbles of the season, and had one interception.
“That’s unheard of, to play 10 football games and not lose a fumble all year,” said Phillips. “That’s pretty amazing.”
Defensively, Daniel Holter led with nine tackles while Kevin Theimer had eight. Luke Peay and Addison McCaleb had seven each
With the loss River finished at 8-3 on the season, their third eight-win season since 2002. The Knights were 8-2 in ’02, and in 2015, Phillips’ first year, they lost their first two games to Lord Botetourt and Glenvar before ripping off eight wins in a row. They hosted a playoff game that year and lost to Graham.
This season all three losses came to teams ranked above River in Region 2C. They lost to top-ranked Radford, second-ranked Glenvar and fourth-ranked Gretna while finishing the season in the fifth spot. It was a fun year for Phillips and his staff.
“Very enjoyable,” he said. “These were really good kids. Every year is different, and we could just tell in the preseason that this was going to be a good year. We had high character people on the team.”
River had 49 kids in the program this year, which was also a factor in the success.
“The last two years we’d been in the low 30s and that made it tough,” said Phillips. “With 49 we could have good practices and make each other better. We had a lot of guys come out, and that really helped.”
Jake is hoping success breeds more success, but he knows it’s no guarantee.
“In 2015 we were 8-2 with a home playoff game and the next year we had 30 some guys come out, and some who were on the team that didn’t come back,” he said. “I hope we have a good turnout next year, but you never know.”
The program is in good shape as Central Academy was undefeated this season and the jayvees also had a good year with wins over Glenvar and Giles.
“I’m sad to see the season end,” said Phillips. “This team had a bunch of good guys, just a joy to be around. It was fun going to practice every day.”