It's a far different road this season. Each road to a championship opportunity always is. But, ironically, the final hurdle remains the same.
After taking the very best shot the Norview Pilots had to offer, the Highland Springs Springers finally were able to punch their return ticket to the 5A State Championship Game, relying on one final defensive stand to win 28-25 and get a rematch with Stone Bridge, who won the 5A North Region title over top-seeded Massaponax 27-21 Friday night, in next Saturday's game at Hampton University.
For the Springers (13-1), it was a pensive afternoon, filled with opportunities, but never able to shake Norview like they did Indian River in the 5A South Region Championship a season ago. The Pilots' defense stepped up in the second half, holding the Springers to just 119 yards of total offense after surrendering 241 in the first half as Highland Springs built a 21-13 lead.
Norview steamed down the field to open the third quarter, scoring on a five-play, 67-yard drive capped by a 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback D.J. Mack to Jamal Deaton. Even though there was over 22 minutes left, the Pilots, who saw an extra point blocked in the first half, went for two to tie the game, and Mack was denied on the quarterback keeper. Norview would never draw closer.
Highland Springs struggled to find the end zone, finally doing so with 6:25 left as quarterback Juwan Carter ended a thirteen-play drive with an 11 yard run to give the Springers a 28-19 lead. Beforehand, a field goal attempt had been blocked, putting the Springers essentially in "all or nothing" mode once they returned to the red zone.
Norview answered immediately, spreading the field, allowing Mack to elude the rush and either hit big plays with his arm or using his feet. Five plays and 72 yards later, Mack found Kavon Lawson from 12 yards to cut the margin to a field goal at 28-25 with 5:15 left.
With the Pilots scoring with such ease, it became imperative for the Springers to try to score again and run down as much clock as possible. They accomplished one of two tasks, running the clock down to 1:48, but a Carter pass on fourth down was wide, and Norview took over with no timeouts at their own 24.
A defensive holding call gave Norview a free first down at their 34. A six-yard pass on second down made it third and four at the 40 as the clock approached 1:00. A would-be first down pass in Springer territory was dropped, bringing up fourth down. Mack completeed a pass just into Highland Springs territory to move the chain at :57.3 left.
Then, a combination of timely Springer defensive moves and a costly decision by Mack closed the door on the Pilots. Michael Greene led a sack of Mack, who quickly got his team to the line, then spiked the ball, apparently. But, being in the pistol formation instead of under center, the officials ruled the spike a forward pass, and Mack was flagged for intentional grounding. The loss of down was the most critical, making it third and 26. After an incompletion, the Pilots were down to one play. Mack was flushed out of the pocket, the Springer back seven masterfully in coverage. Aaron Motley caught up to Mack, bringing him down, and sending Springer Nation back to the promised land.
Carter was 5-for-9 for 144 yards and a touchdown pass, plus two touchdown runs. The Springers had 360 yards of total offense, was only three for eight in third down conversions, and, admittedly, did not have their strongest performance Saturday. But it was enough to secure the victory.
Now Highland Springs turns their attention to Stone Bridge, a team they turned one-dimensional early in last year's championship game en route to a 27-7 victory and the school's first state football title since 1961 and first ever won on the field. The Bulldogs will obviously work the revenge factor, but what they may not realize is the 2016 Highland Springs Springers are not the 2015 edition. They know they must improve. They are not on a roll in terms of execution.
But they are on an emotional roll, experiencing events in recent weeks that teenagers shouldn't have to worry about when they take to the solace of a football field. The Springers will, indeed, be "Angie Strong" when they arrive at Hampton University.
NOTE: The 5A State Championship begins Saturday, December 10th at 12:07pm. Tickets are $10, the game is at Hampton University this season, a new site predetermined by the Virginia High School League.
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