Phil Denfeld caught a four-yard touchdown pass from Mark Cox with 1:21 left in the game to give Annandale a dramatic 14-13 come-from-behind victory over Highland Springs in the Virginia AAA state title football game before 15,000 yesterday at W. T. Woodson's Pat Cunningham Stadium.
Annandale, limited to 22 total yards and no first downs in the first half by the physical visitors from the Richmond area, fell behind, 13-0, after Everett Pettaway's two-yard buck with 5:14 remaining in the third period.
But the poised Atoms, shooting for their fourth state title, were not about to quit.
"We had worked too hard and come so far," said Annandale All-Me center Reuben Weaver. "We couldn't do anything against them in the first half. There were just no holes up there for the backs. In the second half, we opened some and the backs ran a little harder."
Weaver and his offensive linemates finally began beating the bigger Springers off the ball and fullback Jim Hatch, who carried only once in the first half, found some day-light. Following a poor kickoff, the Atoms went 60 yards in seven plays for their first score. Hatch picked up 24 of the yards on four carries before Cox spotted wide receiver Richard Wood behind Alan Jordan for a 25-yard touchdown.
Denfeld kicked the extra point and the Atoms were alive, 13-7, with 2:30 left in the third period.
Highland Springs, a no-nonsense team much like Annandale, got a break when Kelvin Bell picked off a fourth-quarter pass at the Atom 49.
Seven running plays sandwiched around a Craig Roberson-Pettaway 28-yard aerial moved Highland Springs to the Annandale four. On fourth and three, the Springers opted for a field goal and Annandale's paul Frongello broke through and blocked Lonnie Richardson's 22-yard try.
Greg DiRenzo picked up the bouncing ball and stumbled nine yards to the Annandale 37. Annandale then gave the Springers a dose of its shove-the-ball-down-your-throat medicine.
With Hatch, who finished with 67 yards on 13 carries, doing most of the damage, the Northeast Region champions marched to the Springer three. Cox kept the drive alive with a five-yard sprint-out around the left side on fourth and three from the eight.
"It was a pass play but he (Cox) has the option to run," said an elated Atom Coach Bob Hardage, minutes after winning the title. "He got around the corner for the three yards."
Greg Clarke lost a yard on the Atom's first attempt. Cox then faked to Hatch up the middle and rolled slightly to his right. The cool sophomore flipped a perfect toss to his favorite receiver, Denfeld, who caught the ball using his 6-foot-5 frame to shield the ball from the captain of the stingy Soul Patrol secondary, John Lawson. Denfeld caught the ball at the one-yard line and stretched over the goal line to deadlock the game at 13-13.
The senior never flinched under a heavy rush and drilled through the winning point.
"The play was a slam-in. You just break inside and keep the defensive back behind you," said Defeld, who caught a TD pass on the identicial play in the Atoms' 17-0 destruction of GW-Danville in last Saturday's semifinal clash. "Once I got the ball. I just reached out for the goal line."
Was Denfeld worried about missing the extra point kick?
"No, I just stroked it through," said Denfeld.
Highland Springs, which had won 64 of 70 games and was 13-0 coming into yesterday's game, had a chance from its own 16 to escape defeat. But Atom defensive tackle Bruce Hedetniemi broke through to sack Roberson twice and harassed the senior the other two downs into poor throws out of bounds. The last throw sailed almost into the stands with 20 seconds left and Highland Springs was still looking for its first state crown since the playoff system was installed 10 years ago.
"We just ran out of gas," said Highland Springs Coach Al Rinaldi. "We had our big four guys going both ways and it hurt us in the end. Annandale took advantage of that blocked kick and scored on us."
Rinaldi took the blame for even attempting the kick.
"We should have never tried a field goal. We should have tried to score," said Rinaldi, hoping to celebrate his 25th year of coaching with a championship. 'If we don't make it, Annandale has to drive 90 yards or so. I don't think they would have done that against our defense."
The Springer defense in the first half was superb. Six times the highly explosive Atom offense had the ball with room to work and six times the Atoms punted after doing nothing the first three downs.
The Highland Spring offense wasn't too bad either. Running out of the Delaware Wing-T, backs John Lawson, Wendell Morris and Pettaway followed their aggressive line for huge gains.
"They were big and strong. They pulled a lot and stunted, nothing fancy," said Hedetniemi, Annandale's biggest starter at 6-foot and 215 pounds. "They just came at us."
On the Spingers' first possession, they drove to the Atom 33 before running out of downs. Richardson's 51-yard field goal attempt was short.
Richardson tried to redeem himself a little by returning a Denfeld punt 25 yards to the Atom 35 on Highland Springs' next possession. Five running plays moved the ball to the 11. Instead of going for what could have been an almost-sure three points, the Springers went for broke on fourth down and Roberson's pass was incomplete.
"My kicker suffered a leg injury and I decided to try to score," said Rinaldi. "Our kicking game killed us all day."
After a Denfeld punt died at the Highland Springs' 18, Morris turned a three-yard loss into a spectacular breakaway run for an 82-yard touchdown. The 5-11, 177-pound senior took a handoff, slipped away from two arm tackles by Atom defenders, picked up two blocks downfield and was never touched again after reaching midfield.
Gary Venable booted the conversion and Highland Springs led, 7-0, with 3:13 left in the first half. The seven points gave the high-scoring Central Region Champs 400 points for the year.
The Springers looked even stronger following intermission. A 30-yard kick-off return by Dwight Grant gave the Springers good field position at their 39.
The heavyweights then began doing their number up front at the expense of the flustered Atoms and 13 plays later, Pettaway banged into the end zone to push Highland Springs ahead, 13-0, with 5:14 to play in the third period. Hedetniemi and Frongello slipped through to block Venable's kick but a 13-0 lead looked very safe for the Springers.
To make matters worse, Mike Gullette, the Atoms' All-Met safety and team captain, was knocked groggy and couldn't return. The injury was described as a slight concussion. Hardage said Gullette was fine but would go to the hospital for observation.
"I never thought the game was over, even at 13-0," said Hardage, whose team has trailed only twice this year. "We just had to go out and hit a little harder. They were getting a bit tired because they started sitting back and waiting for us. We just had to play a little less conservatively at that point."
Annandale gained only 146 yards as compared to Highland Springs' 290. Both teams played extremely well, committing two turnovers and three penalties between them.
But in the end, it was the Atoms' poise that overcame a game but tired Highland Springs' team.
"I was tired but I tried to put it out of my mind," said two-way guard Arthur Thornton. "We didn't think they had any speed so we gave them the outside. When you start getting five yards a crack, you don't need any."