The script was much different than most fans expected, but the ending was totally what the legions of fans would see as they descended on Victor Kreiter Stadium Saturday at Highland Springs High School. The only question would be which team would score at the end to grab a berth in next week's 5A State Semfinals.
For a team that built a 35-7 lead, thanks in part to a kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked punt resulting in a score, and a pick six, Highland Springs, having watched Hermitage spend most of the rest of the contest build their comeback to tie the game at 35-35, decided to be aggressive in the final drive, not opting to play it safe and rest in the knowledge of playing in overtime.
The Springers drove 70 yards in less than 90 seconds, pulling out all the stops, including a hook and lateral that set up the game-winning score, and Highland Springs defeated Hermitage 42-35 in an absolute classic 5A State Quarterfinal.
"I am estatic; I will not lie, the monkey is off my back," said Highland Springs head coach Loren Johnson on the RVA Sports Network Scoreboard Show live following the victory. "We've never beaten Hermitage in my tenure here, so it is definitely a welcome opportunity to just enjoy the moment right now."
It was a great of dramatic, and huge runs, but it started with Hermitage driving for Eli Odom's first of five touchdowns for a 7-0 lead, while Highland Springs' offense had trouble getting on track.
But Cincinnati commit K'Von Wallace began to make his presence known, first with a 79-yard kickoff return to immediately tie the game at 7-7. A DJ Anderson 28-yard run around right side gave the Springers the 14-7 lead after a quarter. Then, on the first play of the second quarter, a high snap gave Hermitage punter Alex Burton issues, as his kick was blocked by Chris Thaxton, scooped up, and run into the end zone for a touchdown by Davante Cain for a 21-7 lead.
Wallace then turned in defensive work, taking a tipped pass for a Pick Six for another score. Add another Anderson touchdown run, and the Springers led 35-7 midway through the second quarter. After Hermitage muffed a kickoff, the Springers recovered at the Hermitage 33, with a chance to extend the lead even more.
But this is when the Panthers built their firewall, denying the Springers the end zone, which would become a recurring theme over the next 29 minutes of play. One step at a time, one drive at a time, Hermitage began to climb the mountain.
Odom found Tye Bates on an inside slant, Bates spinning around and placing his hand on the ground to keep his knee from touching it, then getting up and racing for a 56-yard score to cut the lead to 35-13. Then, just before halftime, Odom had an open Kaelin Snead in the end zone, but it was Wallace again, this time just getting a hand on the ball to swat it away. It turned out to be a key play overall, keeping the Springers lead at 22 at the half, rather than less.
The Panthers' comeback continued in the second half, as the Springers' offense continued to be stymied, while Odom calmly moved his unit down the field. Touchdown dives, plus runs behind usual defensive tackle Suliaman Kamara, lined up as a fullback, inched Hermitage closer, then finally helping them tie the game on a touchdown run with 1:42 remaining.
Having seen their huge lead evaporate, rather than conservatively playing for overtime, Johnson went aggressive, looking to avoid the extra period, looking to finally slay the dragon.
"What I said to Juwan was, remember, we only need three," Johnson explained, bringing back memories of decisions made a year ago when the Springers tried to complete the comeback win at home in the second round over L.C. Bird, only to see it fall short. "I didn't do that last year playing L.C. Bird. I told him, take your time. The first play will be a run, based on that, I'll call the rest of them."
Anderson did run on first down from their 30 for decent yardage, then Johnson began the final chess match. Reaching the Hermitage 40 with 22 seconds left, it was time to bring out a play best known as the play that propelled the Miami Dolphins back into a 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff game against San Diego, Tony Nathan grabbing the lateral and racing for a touchdown. That game ended in overtime. Today's game would not.
"We practice it every Wednesday, every Thursday, and the hook and lateral gave us some momentum," Johnson noted.
James Jackson perfectly flipped the ball to a dashing Dashawn Young, who raced down the sideline to the Hermitage 12 with 14 seconds left. The Springers were in field goal range, but Johnson placed his "we only need three" mentality aside, and went for it all.
On the next play, rather than Greg Dortch, or Wallace, it was Carter throwing into one-on-one coverage to Jackson, who wrestled the football into his arms in the left corner of the end zone with 9.2 seconds left to set off a celebration on the Springers' sideline 25 years in the making.
"We figured we've got to do something that breaks a tendency," Johnson said. "So, going trips with Greg and K'Von together breaks a tendency. So, we did something we worked on all summer, throwing it back side to James Jackson, who doesn't get a lot of notoriety, our long snapper, short snapper, and he plays receiver for us, and he caught probably the biggest catch of his young career."
A Hail Mary attempt as the horn sounded by Odom was batted away and fell incomplete around the 15-yard line. Highland Springs stormed the field, while the heartbroken Panthers fell to the field at their individual locations, filled with disappointment, and the reality of the finality to the season.
Highland Springs will welcome Indian River, who upset previously unbeaten Hampton Friday night in the other 5A South Region Semifinal (or State Quarterfinal), next Saturday at 1pm. The winner will move on to Scott Stadium in Charlottesville December 12th to play for the 5A State Championship. In the 5A North Region, their defending champion, Tuscarora, will host Stone Bridge next weekend.
For Johnson, it's now time to focus on Indian River, trying to get one more win at home which would allow his team to make reservations to move up Interstate 64. But he will gladly tell you about his love for the individuals that make up his team, and what they mean to him.
"I get emotional, thinking about my kids and how well they played and how well they came together," Johnson exclaimed. "We had some times where we could have tanked, and got in each other's face, but our kids stayed the course, and I'm ecstatic about that. For as much as my kids go through, they fight through it daily, and I'm proud of them for that and excited for them for this opportunity."