Stafford High School's football players began to find their roles around midseason, as Coach Roger Pierce laid out a variety of duties for the hard-working Indians. But none was as simple and clear as the one Pierce handed to senior running back Thomas McClelland: Run the ball. A lot.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior has done just that, and the No. 15 Indians have followed him all the way to today's Virginia AAA Division 5 championship game against Phoebus at University of Richmond Stadium. He has averaged 26 carries per game this season, and 30 in the postseason, piling up school records in rushing yards (2,390) and touchdowns (27).
"As the year went on, I realized that our offensive line was pretty good, kept getting better, kept getting stronger," Pierce said. The other offensive players "understood the roles: 'Your job is to open up the hole. Your job is to put this guy on his backside. Thomas, your job is to run as hard as you can and get the best you can out of it.' "
McClelland and the Indians (11-2) have been getting more than anyone expected from the 2002 season. Stafford, which opened in Falmouth in 1952, had never won a playoff game, never hosted a playoff game and never won more than 10 games before this year.
Last week's 32-29 victory at Hopewell gave the Indians a 4 p.m. date with Phoebus, the defending state champion and winner of 25 straight games.
"People in the community are really excited, I can tell," said senior Tim Sullivan, who has rushed for 642 yards this year. "When we got to school Monday, I had teachers talking to me in class, and principals coming up to me in the halls and talking to me. That's never happened before."
About 40 players spent much of his summer in the weight room, bulking up after a 5-4 season. The conditioning has paid off for McClelland, who also starts at defensive back, as well as junior lineman John Bradshaw, senior running back-linebacker Sullivan and senior offensive lineman-linebacker Chris Collins, four players who play every minute of the game.
"I think we grew into being good," Pierce said. "Early on, I didn't know. I thought we had a couple things there. I knew we worked hard in the offseason. . . . But with the mix and the inexperience, I really didn't know how it was all going to come together."
McClelland gained just 100 yards last year; this year his defining performance came in the AAA Division 5 Northwestern Region championship game against Culpeper, when he carried a state playoff-record 48 times for 216 yards. In three playoff games, McClelland has 648 yards and five touchdowns on 91 carries. In that Culpeper game, a 14-6 victory, McClelland got the ball on 49 of Stafford's 62 offensive plays.
Last weekend against Hopewell, McClelland rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another before being knocked out with a leg injury with 11 minutes left. The injury forced a drastic reshuffling of the team's lineup in all aspects of the game; the Indians even took a safety instead of punting because McClelland is the team's long snapper.
McClelland has practiced this week and will play today.
"At the beginning of the year I didn't think I'd rush for 2,000 yards," McClelland said. "I just wanted to do whatever role the team needed me to do. The yards I've gained, that's really a team thing, that's all the guys doing what they're supposed to do."