By David Coulson. March 17, 2018. BOONE, NC — It was a new season and a different league, but the song remained the same for the High Country Grizzlies on Saturday night on the football field at the Holmes Convocation Center as they fell, 36-19, to the Richmond RoughRiders, the defending champions of the now two-year-old American Arena League.
COVER IMAGE: Grizzlies wide receiver Gerron Bryant looks for the end zone against the Richmond RoughRiders. Photographic image by Bill Barbour for Blowing Rock News
The visiting RoughRiders hit for long touchdown passes on their first offensive play of each half, then played well enough the rest of the way to hold off the fledgling Grizzlies in a sloppy, penalty-plagued contest. It extended the High Country losing streak from last year to five games.
The Grizzlies were 3-7 in their expansion season in the National Arena League.
RoughRider quarterback Rakeem Cato, a college star at Marshall University, nearly rekindled the old and heated Thundering Herd-Appalachian State football rivalry before the game. Cato trashed talked the Grizzlies so severely in the moments before the national anthem that a Richmond coach tried to restrain him and one game official asked him if he actually wanted to stick around to play the game.
It was a good thing that Cato sprinted to the other side of the field after that warning because he went on to complete 11-of-23 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns — including those successful throws of 48 and 35 yards to open each half — and added a fifth TD on a six-yard scoring dash.
“That (first TD) play gave us an idea of what they were going to do to us (defensively),” Richmond coach Mock Zimmerman said of the predetermined play call. “Playing a new team in the league, with an almost entirely different 30-man roster from 2017, we didn’t know what we were getting into to.”
But it didn’t take the RoughRiders long to figure things out.
With Richmond striking for those big passing plays, the Grizzlies couldn’t keep up. An inconsistent passing attack brought drives to quick ends more often than not.
New High Country quarterback Darren Daniel, a gridiron veteran who played college ball at Stanford and Alabama State, was 19-of-36 for only 139 yards and one TD — and at times didn’t seem to be on the same page as his receivers.
“We had some bright spots, but we definitely have some things to improve,” Daniel told reporters later. “A good week of practice will work the kinks out.”
There are plenty of kinks to straighten out in all areas for the Grizzlies, who were embarrassed 243-139 in yards of total offense and committed eight costly penalties for 50 yards in losses.
The kicking game was another glaring weakness. After that first quick Richmond touchdown, High Country place kicker Victor Leventritt had a field goal blocked. He also missed a second field goal from 19 yards and was just 1-of-3 on extra points.
Early in the third quarter, the Grizzlies suffered another serious setback: a serious elbow injury that sent fan favorite and team leader Brandon Sutton to the hospital for X-rays. The popular and talented nose tackle left a big hole in the middle of the defense for the Grizzlies to fill.
High Country head coach Scott Meserve, who moved from an assistant role in 2017 to the head job this season, was mindful of Sutton’s loss in his post-game observations.
“Going into halftime, we were only down by two scores,” recounted Meserve. “That’s not a big deal in Arena. The knockout didn’t come until Sutton went down.”
Things could have been worse for the home team considering that Richmond had four touchdowns negated by penalties. Beyond the lost points and big gains, Richmond’s 14 penalties accounted set the RoughRiders back, cumulatively, for 105 yards.
The Grizzlies will try to get back on track next Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Holmes Center when they host the Florida Tarpons from Lakeland.
Meserve said that two snowstorms during the week severely impacted preparations for the RoughRiders.
“We’ve got to get some practice time this week,” Meserve explained. “Jelling these guys together is the biggest thing. I’ve got another week to do that.”