No weekend will define the 2012 Bay Rivers District football season more than this one. Wins in all three Region I semifinals would mark '12 as very good at the very least, while two regional finalists would be respectable.
One or no victories might hang a "disappointing" label on the season. Any combination is possible, really, because, as our look below reveals, none of the Bay Rivers opponents appears to be unbeatable and none rate a pushover.
Region I Division 3
Park View (9-2) vs. Lafayette (9-1)
Friday | 7:30 p.m. | Wanner Stadium
Based on Lafayette's 57-21 win last year over South Hill-based Park View in the playoffs, you'd have to tab the Rams as the most likely Bay Rivers team to advance. Park View coach Doug Allison doesn't mind ceding the favorite's role.
"We know that we're the underdog, but the most dangerous underdog is one that believes it can win," Allison said.
There are a number of reasons for that belief, including solid showings in both games against Bay Rivers opponents this season. The Dragons lost their season opener 20-17 to Warhill by fumbling inside the 10 late, and followed with a 34-28 overtime win at Jamestown a week later.
"This is our fourth game at Wanner Stadium in the past two seasons," Allison said.
Recent form is another reason for optimism. The Dragons fell 42-26 to Brunswick three weeks ago, but rebounded to beat the Bulldogs 26-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
" 'Believe, improve and attack,' was our motto," Allison said of the playoff victory. "We became more active and were blitzing a little more."
District fans are familiar with Jason Baskerville, the 6-3, 240-pound go-to running back for the Dragons the past two seasons. But Baskerville has fought through a shoulder injury since the Jamestown game, giving the Dragons a chance to diversify in their Wing-T attack.
Junior Matt Brown (624 yards, eight TD) has picked up much of the slack rushing. Sophomore quarterback Brett Cliborne has been smart and efficient (1,047 yards passing, 17 TD, four interceptions) and has a reliable receiver in Geo Feggins (20 receptions, 630 yards, 10 TD).
York (9-2) vs. James Monroe (9-1)
Friday | 7:30 p.m. | Maury Stadium in Fredericksburg
James Monroe is not the 50-points per game offensive juggernaut it was a year ago in defeating Lafayette 56-21 and York 45-7 in the regional playoffs. Graduation and injuries —to QB Demontaz Brown, kick-return star Julian Bumbry and RB Adrian Boone — have robbed the Yellow Jackets of most of the skill stars present in those games.
But the Yellow Jackets are still plenty good and still plenty fast. It's just that this year, those traits more often manifest themselves on a defense allowing fewer than 10 points per game.
"We've gutted out the injuries and won behind our defense," JM coach Rich Serbay said. "We've had to patch things together and are using our third-string quarterback, a third-string linebacker and second- and third-string defensive backs.
"I'm proud of what they've done. This is a tribute to the coaches and the program."
Among the offensive standouts is Sean Bates, whom Serbay credits with nearly 900 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Shemar Ellis has been good at wide receiver (and free safety), but Serbay is uncertain about how effective he'll be this week due to a sore hamstring.
One defensive standout, end Brad Davis did return recently from injury. He joins a group of outstanding defenders led by Eric Nelson and Tony Scott.
"A year ago I was confident we could make a run in the playoffs," Serbay said. "This year I'm only thinking about York."
Region I Division 4
King George (9-2) at Smithfield (9-1)
Saturday | 1:30 p.m. | Smithfield High
Four years ago, Jeff Smith took over a program 9-61 the previous seven seasons. He set about changing a culture in which he saw kids concerned more about what they'd do socially after a loss than lamenting the defeats.
He knew things had changed upon observing his players reaction after a recent 21-13 loss to state power James Monroe, a game in which the Foxes led well into the fourth quarter.
"A lot of the kids were crying because it hurt so bad," Smith said.
This year's group can win in a variety of ways. Smith said a defense that allowed fewer than 10 points a game was the key throughout the regular season, but the Foxes proved they could win a high-scoring game in beating Grafton 34-28 in the first round of the playoffs.
Smithfield will see something of a mirror of itself in the Foxes. Their defense is predicated on speed and strength, while on offense they often employ the spread.
In quarterback Corey Henderson (1,932 yards passing, 20 TDs) and receiver Deshon Brown (36 catches, 620 yards, seven TDs), the Foxes have a formidable passing combo. Jordi Estes (769 yards rushing, eight TDs) is the go-to back.
The trajectory of the King George program is also similar to Smithfield, which was 1-9 a year ago, before going 9-1 and sharing the district title this year.
"Our kids have learned that losing is not acceptable, that you've got to be all in," Smith said. "They want to win."
Region I semifinals
Park View (9-2) vs. Lafayette (9-1), 7:30 p.m. Friday (Wanner Stadium)
York (9-2) at James Monroe (9-1), 7:30 p.m. Friday