PENN LAIRD — Despite the two programs never facing off before and being separated by a mere 65 miles, Spotswood and Fluvanna County are familiar with each other.
Dale Shifflett, who is in his fourth year coaching the Trailblazers and is an alum of the school, played at Bridgewater College with second-year Flucos coach Michael Morris in the 1990s.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” Shifflett said. “He and kind of joked back and forth on Sunday about a couple of players. There are some other connections, too. It’s going to be an exciting matchup. It’ll be a pretty good experience getting to play each other.”
Second-seeded Spotswood will host seventh-seeded Fluvanna in the Region 3C quarterfinals tonight at 7 p.m. tonight in Penn Laird in the two team’s first-ever meeting.
The Trailblazers enter as winners of 19 straight regular-season games, including a perfect 10-0 mark this year, but are focused on avenging a 40-38 upset they suffered as the No. 2 seed to seventh-seeded Liberty-Bedford in last year’s regional quarterfinals.
“We’re very ready,” SHS running back Ethan Barnhart said. “After the feeling of last year’s loss in the first round, it’s just kind of stuck with us. We’re ready to get out there. It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. I think we play better in a big atmosphere, under the lights. It’s a breathtaking experience for us and something special to be part of.”
Stopping Barnhart will be the toughest task for Morris and a Flucos (5-5) defense that is giving up a remarkable 6.8 points per game in five wins, but 34.4 in their five losses.
Barnhart has had one of the best years for a city/county running back in recent memory, finishing with 192 carries for 2,163 yards and 25 touchdowns in just nine games.
“As a defense, you have to take away what they do best or what they like to do,” Morris said. “Just like with us, we have certain things that are our strengths and they’ll want to stop. If you can force us to do things we don’t normally do a little bit, it’s in your favor.”
Linebacker Malachi Hill, who has 58 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception will lead the charge in that task, along with defensive linemen Alden Custer, Gabe Story and East Carolina commit Walt Stribling, who has 10 tackles for loss.
“They’re pretty good up front,” Shifflett acknowledged. “They have two linemen that are really, really good. They do remind me a lot of us. They have some speed and some athletes, but up front, they have some guys that can play with us a little bit up front.”
Coming into the year, the Trailblazers (10-0) were known for their balance offensively.
And while Spotswood still is capable of hurting teams in both the pass and run game — quarterback Ryan High and receiver Rob Smith were both first-team All-Valley District selections — the emergence of Barnhart as a premier back has been welcoming.
“He’s done a phenomenal job,” Shifflett said. “With him and our guys up front, there have been games where we’ve asked him to kind of take over because we thought that was our best way to win in a few of the games we’ve had. It’s worked out. They’ve done a tremendous job all year of being able to do that and hopefully that continues.”
Much like Spotswood, the Flucos are an experienced group with 20 seniors.
Quarterback Kobe Edmonds leads the way for Fluvanna with 1,337 total yards and 20 touchdowns while Malachi Hill and Keontae Hearns lead a running-back-by-committee approach in the backfield with a combined 708 yards and four rushing scores.
“That’s a good thing to have,” Morris said. “Your best defense is your best offense. Spotswood has some pretty good players. They’re pretty explosive offensively this year. We’ve got to keep them off the field so they don’t get big plays in chunks. We’ve played other teams that are pretty explosive. That’s what we’ve tried to preach to them. If you control the clock, move the ball, you can take off quite a bit of time off the clock.”
The Flucos started the season with a 4-1 record, including a pair of wins over Broadway and Waynesboro and a nine-point loss to Spotsylvania. But they then lost four in a row to strong Jefferson District opponents before shutting out Monticello 28-0 to close the year.
Morris said playing teams such as Louisa County prepare the Flucos for the playoffs.
“We’ve seen some pretty good teams with athletes and running backs on the field,” Morris said. “My kids aren’t going to be gun shy about that. Their strength is just like ours — the line. They’re tough, they’re physical and they’ve been in the weight room.”
In his first year as coach last season, Morris led Fluvanna back to the postseason.
He said the experience his group gained from that season, which ended with a 16-6 loss to Brookville in the regional quarterfinals, will be a valuable asset this year.
“We have a lot of seniors,” Morris said. “They went to Brookville last year in a hostile environment and kept it close. They’ve got some confidence. Our team is one of those teams that we preach the importance of coming in every week prepared, no matter who you’re playing. Your record really don’t mean anything during the regular season.”
Coincidentally, Shifflett said he was preaching a similar message to the Trailblazers.
“We talked all year about being able to stay focused,” said Shifflett, whose team has never advanced past the second round. “Right now, it’s the start of a different season. One of the things I preached to our guys is that the playoffs don’t really care how you got there.
“The question they want to know is, ‘What are you going to do when you get there?’ For us, that’s the question that has to be answered because obviously, last year, we got there and didn’t do a very good job. We have to go out there and get past that.”
While the familiarity with the coaches and administration is something Shifflett said will be a “cool” experience for the two teams, it’s not what the players are thinking about.
Instead, they said it’s their past postseason experiences that’s fueling them tonight.
“We’re very focused,” Barnhart said. “We want to come out and get a win and avenge last year’s loss. We’re just continuing to take it week by week. Hopefully, it pays off.”