At half time in the Fort Hunt High School locker room last Saturday, nervous coaches were trying to keep enthusiastic players from getting overconfident. The Federals held only a 7-3 lead over Annandale High School in the Northern Region championship football game, but the Fort Hunt players sensed a victory and the school's first regional title.
The Fort Hunt players forced themselves to be quiet as defensive coach Ron Grow warned that Annandale would come out throwing in the second half. And the players listened carefully as Grow explained that Annandale should be forced to run and throw to the wide side of the field, not up the middle.
But when Grow congratulated the defense on giving up just 37 yards total offense in the first half, it was too much for linebacker Jim Poythress. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior leaped to his feet and shouted, "We've gotta hold 'em!" and his teammates echoed their agreement.
Grow calmly looked at Pythress and said, "Sit down, son, we've got 20 minutes before the half starts."
Then head coach Frank Creneti took over.
"The offense has to hit them HARDER! We all have to get off the ball HARDER! We want to pound them into the GROUND in the second half! Everybody just think a minute. Just think how it's gonna FEEL! We've all worked hard all season. Just think how it's going to feel to be NORTHERN REGION CHAMPS!"
The locker room resounded in cheers, and the Federals burst out for the second half.
One player, senior running back Tony Mial, burst too soon. Halfway to the field, he began to jog back to the locker room. "Forgot my helmet," he explained sheepishly.
The Federals didn't forget much else. They made all the big plays when they had to in the second half, to win 16-13.
Poythress' energy carried over from the locker room to the field, and on the first two plays of the half he slammed Annandale running back Andre Jones to the ground.
Those hits brought cries of "Defense! Defense!" from the Fort Hunt cheerleaders and fans in Woodson's chilly Pat Cunningham Stadium.
On the first series of offensive plays in the second half the Federals marched into the Atoms' end zone, with a drive highlighted by a flashy 28-yard run by senior running back darren Belk to the Annandale 8 yard line. Two plays later Belk burst over the goal line for a five-yard touchdown run, giving Fort Hunt a 13-3 lead with 9:33 left in the third quarter.
Later in the quarter Fort Hunt began a drive from its own 1 yard line with several short runs. Then 6-foot-5, 200-pound quarterback Bill Turner lofted a pass that flanker Robby Hensley caught over his shoulder at the Fort Hunt 35.
Belk ran for 12 more yards, and then Turner hit Hensley with a 44-yard pass to the Annandale 9 as the quarter ended. Seconds later, Bruce Peterson kicked a 25-yard goal to give the Federals a 16-3 lead.
Then Annandale, the team with more regional titles (five) than any other, drew on tradition and began coming back.
Turner was dumped into his own end zone by Annandale's Robbie Morris for a safety, making the score 16-5 in the middle of the fourth quarter. With 4:30 left in the game, Annandale quarterback Dan Henning flipped a short pass that senior receiver John Bonato turned into a 20-yard touchdown after breaking several tackles. A two-point conversion run by Jones made th score 16-13.
Annandale had one more chance to score, but with 1:51 remaining, Mike Walker's pass was intercepted by Fort Hunt's Lonnie Lambert and the Federals ran out the clock.
After the game, Fort Hunt players Al Monroe and John Howay danced on the field.
Poythress, whom Creneti calls the team's "emotional leader," hugged friends and said, "Where's my dad? Where's my dad?"
And there were tears from Creneti, Fort Hunt's coach since 1974, as he clutched the silver trophy signifying the regional championship. "Nobody ever believed in us, except us," Creneti said. "I think others have to believe now too."
Fort Hunt plays Danville's George Washington High School Saturday at 1 p.m. in Danville in the state championship semifinals.