Friday Night Football: Statesmen struggle to overcome injuries

Published 6:59 am Saturday, September 30, 2023

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It’s hard losing one starter in a high school football season. Losing two is a challenge. But lose three or more, like the Randolph-Henry Statesmen have, and it completely changes things. You have to restructure game plans, as the replacement players often have different skillsets. There are some plays you can’t run anymore and new ones you have to draw up, to play to the strengths of the new starters. 

“The kids play hard, for sure, but it’s just been one thing after another,” said Randolph-Henry Head Coach Ray Conner. “It can be a struggle at times to adapt, like we’ve had to.” 

The challenges brought on by injury played a role in this week’s game as well, as the Statesmen had to adapt and fill roles. They were shut out 52-0 at home, against a resurgent Buckingham Knights squad. 

The problem is that for the Statesmen, each of the injured players were starters on offense and defense. So they didn’t just lose three, even for a short period. It was more like they lost six. And try to find any team that can quickly overcome that kind of impact. 

Sophomore Cameron Sizemore suited up as both a tailback and middle linebacker, so it was almost like losing two players at once. The same goes for Colton Mann. The junior played both wide receiver and outside linebacker, meaning that the Statesmen lost a blocker on one side and a key part of the defense on the other. Malachi Gamble was a wide receiver and a defensive back. 

Season shifts for Statesmen

The team’s seen several other players go on the injured list for at least one game, but there’s concern Gamble and Mann won’t return this year. Conner confirmed that Gamble is out for the season. As for Mann, “it’s iffy”, Conner said. 

Mann’s loss hits hard for Conner, as he had praised the junior at the beginning of the year, seeing a strong season ahead. 

“He’s been probably one of our most improved players,” Conner said in August. “It’s tough, transitioning from tight end to receiver. You have to work on catching and running routes, there’s a lot of offseason training involved, developing a little more speed. But he’s done it.”

As a result of those injuries, it’s almost turned into a rebuilding year of sorts for Randolph-Henry. Underclassmen find themselves in new roles, as the 1-5 team heads down the stretch for the season’s final four games. 

“When you lose All-District talent, there’s not one just ready to be put in,” Conner said. “That takes time to learn the position as a starter.” 

Up next for the Statesmen is a road trip to Victoria next Friday, where they’ll take on a Central High team that won a 55-44 dogfight this week against Prince Edward. Then it’s another road trip to take on those Prince Edward Eagles, followed by a home game against Amelia and a final game against Nottoway. 

Despite the injuries, Conner said he makes sure his team understands the privilege they have, to suit up and play each week. 

“Each week is still a great honor,” Conner said. “To play the game we love, to play in front of the crowd.

Eagles fall short, but stand tall

Last week, something clicked for Prince Edward. Playing against Northumberland, the Eagles ignited an offense that had been stagnant for the first three weeks of the season. And while the team lost that game 72-46, it still showed they had figured out the offense. 

Last week, Prince Edward Coach Larry White gave credit to the offensive line, as they not only held off Northumberland’s attacks, but they also were learning the scheme. 

“My philosophy has always been run first,” White said. “I’m gonna run to open up the pass. I’ve been a run first man ever since I’ve been coaching.”

To do that successfully, you have to build a strong connection between the running backs and the offensive line. The Eagles are focusing on zone and combo blocking this season. A combo block is where you use two linemen to block defenders on different levels. One offensive lineman catches the defensive end rushing in, while another picks up the linebacker. That can free a running back for some big gains, but they all have to be in synch. That’s why teams who use this can start slow, as players pick up the nuances of how to handle the defense on different plays. 

And while the team is still struggling on the defensive front, there were plenty of positives to take away from Friday’s game. Central High exploded out of the gate, putting up 27 in the first quarter alone. Prince Edward struggled to match that, scoring only 12 before halftime. But a key for the Eagles was the fact they were able to hold Central High scoreless in the second quarter. A defense that was shredded by Northumberland on Monday rallied to bend but not break. 

A problem with penalties

Remember what we mentioned about learning to zone and combo block? The defensive equivalents of that take time to develop as well. Penalties were a problem throughout the game for Prince Edward. Just as the Eagles shut down Lunenburg, they would get a pass interference penalty on 3rd and 5 to move the chains. Over and over we saw that through the night, at times even back to back penalties. 

The simple point is that the defense is learning, but isn’t quite there yet. The offense took a while to figure things out Friday night as well. The Eagles took their 12 points into the third quarter, before catching fire. After chipping away, little by little, it turned into a footrace of sorts by the end, with Prince Edward only losing by 11 points, with a final score of 55-44. 

In talking with Coach White earlier this week, he recognized the challenges that his team faces, as the underclassmen learn and develop. But that doesn’t change the Eagles’ focus, he said. 

Every team is gonna be tough,” White said. “We know this going in. But the thing is, we all go in with a 0-0 score. You just have to compete with them and play hard. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Other scores across the Statesmen region

Nottoway 48 Cumberland 24

Brunswick Academy 48 Fuqua 6