Oakton defensive lineman Curtis Eward said it might have been the fastest he'd ever run -- and he still doubted it would be fast enough.
On a crucial kick return late in the third quarter of Oakton's playoff game against visiting Annandale, Eward caught a short kickoff, broke four tackles and then sprinted in pure desperation. For nearly 50 yards, the 200-pound lineman streaked down the right sideline and prayed nobody would catch him.
When he finally tumbled into the end zone -- giving Oakton its most crucial touchdown in a 28-14 win -- he rested for a few seconds on the ground, too exhausted to celebrate.
He would rejoice later, anyway. After time expired to give No. 16 Oakton (9-2) its second win in two weeks over Annandale (7-4), Cougars players swarmed Eward and congratulated him again near midfield.
"I'm still tired," said Eward, a senior who also plays tight end. "A play like that can take everything out of you. But that's okay. That touchdown kind of helped us take control of the game."
Until Eward broke away for his unlikely score, Oakton and Annandale had spent most of three quarters in a back-and-forth battle. Both offenses moved efficiently by relying on the run. Annandale quarterback Nathan Cartagena ran 24 times for 154 yards, helping the Atoms stay competitive in their first playoff game since 1994. Annandale running backs John Logan and Joe Kruse combined on 21 carries for 95 yards, and Kruse scored midway through the third quarter to tie the game at 14.
Oakton moved the ball just as easily. Running back Keith Payne had 156 yards, and Taylor Naleppa had 106 on nine carries. They both scored.
"Every time we scored and got things going, they scored, too," Cartagena said. "It was like we could never get momentum. We'd come off the field after a big play, and they'd make a big play right back."
Said Payne: "We knew they were going to run, but we wanted to show we could run just as well. We set the tone early that we were not going to be stopped.
"Usually I don't get going until the second half, but I wanted to hit the holes hard this whole game."
The decisive run came from Eward, an unlikely source. He used to play running back, but he switched positions when his body outgrew that position. He plays on the second line of Oakton's kick-return formation, a spot that usually makes him a blocker.
"When you get the ball, you've always got to be ready to go with it," Eward said. "I knew I could make a play, but when I caught that ball I had a long way to go. I'm just glad I made it.