Saturday, December 10, 2016

BACK-TO-BACK: Hollywood Ending For Emotional Highland Springs

For those of us in the media who have been covering Highland Springs for several seasons, we well remember the edict of their head coach, Loren Johnson, as training camp began in August that 2016 would be a different year, to put the success of 2015 away and begin a new hunger for a new trip to a state championship.

No one could ever imagine just how different this season would be. But, in the end, the result was exactly the same, as the Springers, one final time, found a way to win, defeating Stone Bridge for the second straight year, this time by a 35-29 count, for their second 5A State Championship, and their third crown in school history.

The Springers (14-1) began the season defeating Hermitage, something the 2015 team did not do. But after a win over Norview came a hiccup, a surprising 8-7 loss to Meadowbrook. A bye week, and a wake-up call later, the regrouping and regathering began.

We first saw Highland Springs on a Monday night make-up game at Atlee. We were left with the impression that while the Springers were still very good, they weren't at championship level yet. Under two weeks later, the Springers defeat Lee-Davis in an ugly game, a game that left Johnson frustrated in multiple ways. But in that win, there was a big difference in the overall performance of the team. You could see it coming together.

By the end of the regular season, Highland Springs had, again, earned the number one seed in 5A South. A win over Deep Run began the postseason journey. Then, everything changed.

After a valiant battle with cancer, team mom, and the mother of wide receiver Chris Thaxton, Angie Johnson passed away. Teenagers trying to focus on repeating as state champions now had to deal with grief and loss. Some teams could not overcome that. Highland Springs channeled it.

They pulled away from Douglas Freeman in round two. They played their best half of defense in the second half of the region semifinal win over L.C. Bird on a day that was overcast until the very first play from scrimmage when, suddenly, the sun brilliantly revealed itself over Kreiter Stadium. It was a message.

The next week, in the 5A South Region Championship, it took every measure of their resilience and fortitude to hold off an improved Norview team 28-25 to punch the ticket to Hampton University, a different state championship site than 2015. On Saturday, Stone Bridge made sure it was also a different type of championship game.

The Bulldogs went with the short kicking game, recovering a fumble on the opening kick and cashing it in for a 7-0 lead on the first of three Bradley Block one-yard touchdown runs. His second upped the lead to 13-0 with 2:27 left in a first quarter where Highland Springs seemed lost at times.

Then, sensing an opportunity to deliver a big blow to the Springers as was does to them early in the game a year ago, Stone Bridge goes for it on 4th their own 33 yard line. Highland Springs stemmed the tide, got the ball, and, two plays later, 33 seconds into the second quarter, Juwan Carter sliced up the middle for a 19-yard touchdown scamper. It's now 13-7, and the Bulldogs just cracked the door open. Instead of pinning a struggling team deep, the Springers completely regrouped, and it was game on.

It would be over twenty minutes of game time before there would be another score, when Carter found Isaiah Winstead from 13 yards to give Highland Springs their first lead at 14-13 with 3:17 left in the third quarter. Stone Bridge had not scored in nearly two quarters, and now was on the ropes. The Bulldogs responded like a heavyweight fighter knowing they are down two points with two rounds to go.

Josh Breece, who rushed for 213 yards, more yards than the entire Stone Bridge offensive output in the 2015 game (184 yards), scored on a 22-yard run in the first minute of the final quarter, then scored the two-point conversion for a 21-14 lead. But on their first play from scrimmage, Willie Harkless took off, breaking a tackle, then outracing the secondary to the end zone on a 62-yard touchdown run reminiscent of D.J. Anderson's touchdown race early in the 2015 game. In one play, it was 21-21.

The Springers forced a Stone Bridge punt, the only one of the game by either team, taking over with 9:33 left. Three plays later, Carter found James Jackson, who raced to the end zone for a 48-yard touchdown, and it's suddenly 28-21. Stone Bridge saved their best offensive work for the next drive, as they confidently ran the ball down the field after an early flirtation with the pass, producing a 16-play, 80-yard drive taking 7:13 off the clock.

Block scored his third touchdown, it's 28-27 with 1:22 left. The Bulldogs gamble, and go for two, and Leland Girdy found the front pylon. Stone Bridge led 29-28, but there was time left. Time left for a miracle.

This is where Hollywood would look at the proposed script and say, well, no, this simply isn't believable.

First, Billy Kemp returns the kickoff 35 yards to the Stone Bridge 34. A false start penalty backed the Springers up to the 39. Carter ran for six yards, then found Thaxton for 12 yards and a first down at the Stone Bridge 21 as the final minute began. Then, in a play Carter said after the contest was designed to go elsewhere, he saw an advantage.

"I saw they had one on one coverage with my man and I knew if I put it up, he'd get it," Carter said.

He was Winstead, who caught the jump ball at the three-yard line. It's first and goal with 30.5 seconds left. The time had come for a final appearance from the spirit of Angie Johnson.

On a day bathed in sunshine at Hampton University, Carter went back to pass, and found a second option, a streak of purple appeared in the middle of the end zone. It was Chris Thaxton. Carter threw a fastball, and Thaxton squeezed the football like he never had before. Touchdown Highland Springs with 26 seconds left.

Springer fans experienced cheers and tears in unison as the storybook ending unfolded. But there was one chapter left to be written. Stone Bridge began their final drive at their 40, but forced to do what they aren't comfortable doing: pass the football. It took over 31 1/2 minutes for the Springers to force Stone Bridge into a corner, but when they did, they seized on the opportunity.

After an intentional grounding call, a pass to midfield was easily intercepted by Billy Kemp. Sheer elation engulfed Springer Nation as Bulldog fans fell to the seats in disbelief. The Springers jumped, danced, even a backflip once the clock hit 0:00.

Some thoughts now on today, and the season:

1) When asked about linebacker Justin Hopkins, who had eight solo tackles, six assists and 1.5 tackles for loss in the victory, Johnson described him as the "runt" of his family when compared to his brothers, but much bigger with his team.

"We had to find linebackers," Johnson noted. "Justin is an unsung hero. He may not be all-region or all-state, but he's everything to us."

2) As was the case last year, Glaster Ellis' leg was key in kickoffs with multiple touchbacks, while Jack Notley nailed all five of his extra point attempts.

3) Rell Coley went out with a bang with six solo tackles, 12 assists and an interception. In a game where the Springers had to bend and not break, Coley led the way, Hopkins right beside him.

4) When asked about the influence Johnson has had on his players, defensive lineman Aaron Motley was quick to answer that question.

"It's been an incredible ride with Coach," Motley said. Thaxton chimed in.

"Coach should star in a reality show," he added.

5) The Springers have now gone 28-2 in the past two seasons, two seasons with two divergent paths to the same goal, a goal that has galvanized a community that well deserves it.

Video of the Thaxton game-winning touchdown is below as well as one of the post-game celebration:

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