News Virginian File

Coach Robert Casto watches players warm up during the first practice of 2019 at Riverheads High School in Greenville on Aug. 5. The Gladiators will host Essex in a state semifinal game on Saturday.

Augusta County is going to be a must-stop destination for high school football fans next Saturday as Riverheads and Stuarts Draft will be hosting state semifinal games.

It is the first time in the county’s long football history that two schools are home for the state semifinals on the same day. Draft’s kickoff for its Class 2 battle against Thomas Jefferson-Richmond is scheduled for 1 p.m., while Riverheads’ start time will be confirmed Monday.

The three-time defending Class 1 champion and unbeaten Gladiators (13-0) have a rematch against familiar foe Essex (12-1). This will be the fourth consecutive year the teams have locked up. The Gladiators have come away with 38-0, 17-14 and 28-6 wins.

High-scoring Essex, which has lit up the scoreboard for 50 points or more six times, earned its ticket for back-to-back trips to Greenville by manhandling rival Rappahannock 60-28 on Saturday in the Region 1A championship. The Trojans’ lone setback came at home in Week 3 to King William, 36-12.

Last season was the first time the Gladiators had ever hosted a state semifinal, and they made the most of the opportunity by dominating Essex during the 28-6 triumph. Riverheads hopes history repeats itself as it seeks a fourth straight title.

Stuarts Draft (12-1) has hosted a state semifinal before in 2016, but it was one that make Cougar fans cringe at the mention. Draft, which was unbeaten at the time, led Richlands until the final minute when the Blue Tornado drove the field and scored the winning touchdown for a heart-crushing 24-23 victory.

The Cougars, who staged a dramatic turnaround this season after going 3-7 in 2018 with a squad full of youngsters, have a chance for redemption against a TJ-Richmond (11-2) team that won the Region 2A title Friday by escaping King William 30-28.

The Vikings are in the postseason for the fourth straight year, and this is the deepest they have ever gone in the playoffs. Football and TJ-Richmond have not gone hand-in-hand over the years, especially when they were trying to compete in the old Group AAA. The Richmond-area schools stayed together in the upper classification regardless of enrollment size.

The program did not register a win from 1998-2002, a span of 49 consecutive losses (they only played nine games in 2001).

Then after winning two games apiece in 2003 and 2004, the hard times hit in earnest from 2005-2011 when the Vikings went a combined 1-69, the lone victory coming in 2007.

But once the Virginia High School League went to six classifications, the football fortunes have turned around for the Vikings. Their only losses this season came to Amelia County (46-40) and Deep Run (33-0).

If Riverheads and Stuarts Draft are victorious in their respective semifinal clashes, the final destination is Salem Stadium on Dec. 14 for the championships. The Class 1 game is scheduled for a high noon start, while Class 2 follows at 4 p.m.

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