Countless groups of people that are placed together for a common reason, or to achieve a common goal, refer to themselves as "family". Few, if any, are tighter, more genuine, more authentic than the 2015 Highland Springs Springers football team.
Their mettle was tested early, on the field and off. Tried and tested by life even before the calendar flipped to September, the Springers truly became a family, filled with its ups and downs, celebrations and dysfunctions, riding a 13-game winning streak to Charlottesville for the 5A State Championship against red-hot Stone Bridge.
And while most headlines this season have been about the skill players, and certainly deserved, it was the young men in the trenches, on both sides of the ball, who led the push to the promised land, as the Springers held a Bulldog team who had scored 104 points to beat two previously unbeaten teams in the past two weeks to just a touchdown en route to a 27-7 victory, and the school's first state title since 1961, and first ever decided in a championship encounter.
Names like Dilworth, Motley, Blackwell, Bynum, Streat, Carey, Williams and Becton have consistently won the war in the trenches, and on this day, they opened early holes for running back DJ Anderson, protected quarterback Juwan Carter, and, especially in the second half, harassed Stone Bridge signal caller Joe Thompson time after time.
"Our defensive line coaches emphasized flatbacks, controlling the line of scrimmage, and staying with your keys," said head coach Loren Johnson. "Against a single wing, if you penetrate too much, guys will run right by you."
There was much talk this past week about whether the Springers could weather the single wing attack of the Bulldogs. But a play very early in the game, unbeknownst to Johnson and his staff at the time, caused a decision on the other side of the field that, in the end, played right into the strength, and the teeth, of the Springers.
As Stone Bridge drove down the field on the opening possession of the game, Thompson launched a pass across the middle that, for a moment, seemed like a sure touchdown. But Greg Dortch used his blazing speed to catch up to the receiver just enough where he could leap and grab the football for the game's first turnover at the end zone.
Bulldogs head coach Mickey Thompson acknowledged following the game that the closing speed of the Springers secondary, shown by Dortch's athletic catch, caused him to focus more on running the football. And, for each time Stone Bridge found a way to grab a first down, there were multiple runs of short yardage, no gain, or a short loss. When they attempted to run to the corners, Dortch, Deshawn Sutton, Earl Anderson and others would shut them down.
But before that, the Springers needed a lead. DJ Anderson provided that, rushing three times for 73 yards, including a 61-yard scamper to start the scoring on the Springers' first possession off the interception for a 7-0 lead. The Bulldogs would take advantage of what appeared to be a Dortch mistake, running back for a quick kick on fourth down, but the ball seemingly touching his leg or foot, recovered by Stone Bridge at the Highland Springers 17. The Bulldogs took advantage of the red zone opportunity, tying the game at seven on a one-yard run by Chase Ridley with 8:48 left in the first half.
The Springers responded, as Carter found K'Von Wallace for a 22-yard score for a 13-7 lead nearly five minutes later, a lead they would take to the locker room. Highland Springs was halted quickly on their first drive of the second half, but fired the offensive engines on a third down and ten on their second possession, Carter hitting Wallace on a seven-yard out pattern, the Cincinnati commit doing the rest, making one man miss and jetting down the Stone Bridge sideline for a 55-yard score. Wallace was the recipient of a two-point conversion pass by Dortch for a 21-7 lead.
The rest of the game featured the Bulldogs frustratingly attempting to find any spark to start a comeback. But once the Springers placed their final touchdown on the board early in the fourth quarter, the air came out of the Stone Bridge sails, and the anticipated celebration for Springer fans who had made the trek up Interstate 64 began to bubble.
A drive that went backwards, placing Highland Springs at a third down and 32 to go at their own 34, turned on a dime when Dortch was placed at tailback. He simply allowed his linemen to create a hole, turned on the jets up the middle, and broke away from a would-be tackler for a 66-yard touchdown run that put the game out of reach.
Highland Springs has had many talented teams, including during Johnson's eight-year tenure, teams like 2012, who began 9-0, lost to arch rival Varina to end the regular season, finding themselves 9-1 and out of the playoffs, teams with home-field advantage that fell short, such as a year ago against eventual champion L.C. Bird, and two teams, in 1978 and 1989, that made the state finals, only to lose by a combined four points. What was the difference in 2015?
"There were two things: teamwork and trust," Johnson noted. "That was a point of emphasis this off-season. We think last year against L.C. Bird in the second round, we just didn't get it done because we had some guys that kind of swayed a little bit. With fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year olds, if you sway a little bit, that's swaying a lot."
The galvanization of this team began in the offseason, when junior lineman Brandon Lambert collapsed of heatstroke during a workout. His comeback, just to survive, then to return to his team, was showing a quality of leadership unexpected at the high school level.
"Brandon is the epitome of Highland Springs football," Johnson said. "Brandon Lambert can lead people, and stature means nothing to him. It's just the way he is as a person, and we love him for it. When he speaks, everyone listens."
Lambert, fittingly, entered the game on its final play, his only action of the season, and took a handoff from Carter to take a knee and watch the clock reach 0:00, not from a hospital bed, or his home, but on the field at the University of Virginia.
When senior players were asked about the mixed emotions that come with winning a state title, followed by, moments later, the realization that the uniform you're wearing is about to come off for the last time, raw emotion came forth, with messages that led Johnson to tears at the podium.
"I'm not necessarily saying I'm a man now, but he (Johnson) brought me to the man I am today," Wallace noted. "I have no father in my life. So him being there, going to church with him...we were praying, and he told me I would go to college on a D-1 offer, and that's what happened. God blessed me to have this man in my life."
For Johnson, the scoreboard today was not validation for the indelible stamp he's placed on the Highland Springs program.
"Validation is hearing them say Coach Johnson is the best coach I've ever had, Coach Johnson loves us, Coach Johnson cares about us. That's validation to me, because I got into high school coaching to make young men better men."
On this sunny, unseasonably warm Saturday in December, his men were better men on the field, and his legacy will help them be better men off the field for many years to come.
--The Springers ended the season with 612 points scored, an average of 40.8 points per game. The defense only allowed 186 points, an average of 12.4 points per game. 69 of the points came in the second and third rounds of the playoffs, 34 by Lee-Davis and 35 by Hermitage.
--Highland Springs rushed for 241 yards, led by DJ Anderson with 107.
--The Springer defense held Stone Bridge, who scored 104 points in the past two weeks, to just 184 total yards of offense. The Bulldogs were just two of twelve on third down conversions.
--Kicker/Punter Glaster Ellis had a standout day on special teams, with two kickoffs for touchbacks and averaging nearly 36 yards per punt, taking precious field position away from the Bulldogs when the game was still well in reach.
--Highland Springs joins Hopewell (2003), Meadowbrook (2004), Thomas Dale (2009) and L.C. Bird (2012, 2013, 2014) as state champions from the Central Region in the 21st century.