The Appomattox Raiders and Stuarts Draft Cougars are just a few days away from batting for 2019 Class 2 supremacy in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
For the Raiders (12-2), Saturday's championship game will be their fourth trip to Salem in the last five years, counting a three-year reign as state champs from 2015-2017. Needless to say, nobody is shocked to see the Raiders' name on the title game schedule despite their slow start (1-2) to the 2019 season.
On the contrary, Stuarts Draft is coming off a 3-7 record in 2018. In a remarkable one-year turnaround, the Cougars are making their first ever state championship game appearance after a 10-win improvement (13-1) over last year.
Fourth-year Cougars head coach Nathan Floyd led his team to the 2016 Class 2 State Semifinals in his first season at the helm. The Cougars lost that game to Richlands, who went on to lose to Appomattox in the championship game by a score of 42-7.
Stuarts Draft's only loss of the 2019 season was to undefeated Riverheads, who will face Galax in the Class 1 State Championship in Salem prior to the Class 2 game.
Appomattox fell one game short of their fourth consecutive state playoff appearance in 2018 with a 28-25 road loss at Radford in the regional finals.
Last Saturday, the Raiders were the home team in this year's state semifinal and defeated visiting Graham 28-13.
Some names to watch for Stuarts Draft are linebacker Kasey Branch, 6-foot 3-inch wide receiver Freddie Watkins, quarterback Henry Cooke, and running backs Aaron Nice, Dustyn Fitzgerald and Blake Roach.
Watkins scored three rushing touchdowns in last week's 49-7 state semifinal win over Thomas Jefferson. He has also totaled 20 catches for seven touchdowns on the year. Appomattox cornerback Jordan Scott (team leader with five interceptions), who stands at 6-foot 4-inches, would be a natural size matchup against the lengthy Cougars wideout.
The ground-oriented Cougars feature a three-headed running attack led by Nice, the team's leading rusher with 1,195 yards and 25 touchdowns. However, it was Roach who ran for 163 yards against Thomas Jefferson with Fitzgerald adding 109. Nice totaled 44 yards in the game.
Cooke has passed for 1,360 yards and 16 scores on this season.
While the productive Cougar running backs all are listed at 170 pounds or less, the Raiders counter with several strapping bruisers coming out of their backfield.
Cristian Ferguson (listed at 5-foot 10-inches and 205 pounds) plays even bigger than his size, consistently pounding his way to 1,589 yards (9.4 yards-per-carry) and 17 touchdowns on the year. Keyshawn Baker (listed at 5-foot 7-inches and 187 pounds) is a physical player who also packs quite a punch, adding 548 yards and crossing the goal line seven times.
Raiders quarterback Tre Lawing is known as a run-first signal caller but is capable of putting the ball in the air. Lawing passed for 1,226 yards on the season with 19 touchdowns and only 3 interceptions. On the ground, Lawing was the Raiders' second leading runner with 958 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Leading the receiving corp for Appomattox is Tyler Gilliam with 26 receptions, 506 yards and seven scores. Jaheim Scruggs, Tez Booker, Tevin Hurt and Jonathan Pennix also provide downfield options for Lawing.
Senior linemen Jaylen Lewis, Justice Wright, Jamal Wheeler and Colton Smith are the leaders along the line of scrimmage for Appomattox, working in cohesion with several underclassmen to open holes for the running game and stop the run on defense.
Baker tops all Raider defenders with 65.5 total tackles and four forced fumbles. He is followed closely by fellow linebacker and FBS college football prospect Hurt with 62 tackles, including a team-leading 11 for loss. Smith is the team's top pass rusher with four sacks.
Doug Smith is in his eighth year as Appomattox head coach. His era got underway in 2012 with a modest 4-6 record. But the program has grown substantially to become the most successful overall Class 2 football program in Virginia during the last five years.
The Cougars and Raiders had no common opponents during the 2019 season, so there is only one way to settle the question of which is the better team. The answer will come a few hours after Saturday's kickoff time of 4:30 p.m. in Salem Stadium.
According to the National Weather Service out of Blacksburg, the forecast for Saturday's game should be a high near 51 degrees with rain occurring in the morning. A winter weather advisory has been issued for the Salem area beginning at midnight tonight until 7 p.m. Friday with a chance of snow, sleet and freezing rain with little or no accumulation. Precipitation is expected to turn to rain only, beginning around midday Friday.
Check local weather forecasts for updated information.