As each Hylton football player walked out of an emotional team meeting inside the school late Saturday afternoon, he was greeted by a warm round of applause from a couple of dozen well-wishers. The ovations coaxed the weakest of smiles from some players and extra tears from others.
The starting Bulldogs were upset, for sure, after their near comeback fell short in a 25-14 home loss to defending state champion Landstown in a Virginia AAA Division 6 semifinal. But some of the puffiest eyes belonged to guys whose contributions the previous four months had come solely in practice, not in games.
That sense of togetherness -- with the hopes that it would lead to a fourth state title in eight years -- is what the Bulldogs were striving for this fall after a somewhat fractious 2004 season. So although the down-to-the-wire loss to Landstown hurt more than the 41-0 state semi loss to Robinson the previous season, it was easier to digest because it met Coach Lou Sorrentino's "no regrets, no excuses" criterion.
In front of a stadium so stuffed that the Hylton band was bumped from the bleachers to the surrounding track, the Bulldogs (12-1) held a team averaging 48.4 points and now ranked No. 10 nationally in USA Today to three offensive touchdowns. They continually pressured the Eagles' record-book passing game, recorded three takeaways, shook off the fact that they allowed a touchdown on the Eagles' first play to the guy (senior receiver Percy Harvin) they were most trying to stop, and even carried a 7-6 lead into the fourth quarter.
In the final period, Landstown scored on an 89-yard drive and on a short field after one of its four interception to take a 19-7 led with less than two minutes left. But Hylton scored with 1 minute 4 seconds to play, recovered an onside kick, drove to the nine-yard line (with a fourth-down completion along the way) and after a spike, had two shots at the end zone from the nine-yard line.
The latter throw was picked off at the goal line by Harvin and returned the length of the field for a touchdown as time expired.
"The way they battled back to give themselves a shot to win symbolizes what we've been all year," Sorrentino said. "Our kids don't need to hang their heads. It wasn't something that we inflicted on ourselves. I think that was my big disappointment last year. . . . This is the ultimate team game and we have to work together. I think we learned that lesson. That's what I'm really proud about [with] this bunch."
"That's what you think about," senior linebacker Aaron Adusei said, "all that time that you spend in the weight room working together. On the field practicing, helping each other up. On the bus saying, 'Keep it up, we have a ring to win.' Don't think just about this game, think about everything, the happy times that we all had together."
Some seniors, among them running back Courtney Anderson, the only 2005 player who was on the 2002 state championship team, spoke in the postgame meeting. Anderson said one of his comments "shocked" his teammates.
"I said that I would remember this team even more than the state team," Anderson recounted a few days later. "That was pretty moving to everybody, like, wow, why would you remember a team that lost in the state semifinals [rather than] a team that won states?
"I just believe we were more of a team now than we were on that state team. Everybody worked toward the same goal. We have so many names to throw out there. I think people will remember that state football team for [quarterback] Jeff Overton, maybe. If we were to win states or if you remember this team, you would probably throw a lot of names out there."
A victory over Landstown, winner of 27 consecutive games, would have again paired Hylton with Oakton in the state championship, just like in 2002. Instead, Hylton lost in the state semis for the third straight year, after winning an eighth consecutive Northwestern Region title. The loss to Landstown and the state semi loss to Westfield in 2003 are the only defeats the Bulldogs have weathered in 20 playoff games on their home field.
The finality of it all hit Anderson when he went home Saturday evening and realized that all the Hylton football newspaper articles on his wall, from years past and present, had gone from current events to history.
"I just looked up there and said, 'Gosh, I just retired myself from high school football today,' " Anderson said. "I think that was the most hurting part about the loss."