Running out to the field before thirteenth-ranked Oakton's Virginia AAA Division 6 Northern Region final against No. 6 Westfield, Cougars senior fullback Taylor Naleppa brandished a maroon and gold sledgehammer.
The message was clear.
"We just wanted to pound it down their throats," Naleppa said.
Behind a punishing rushing attack led by senior Keith Payne's career-high 244 yards and five touchdowns, the Cougars did just that, dispatching the Bulldogs, 42-24, before more than 7,000 in Vienna for their second region championship in four years. Oakton (10-2) also continued its streak of beating Westfield when it counts, defeating the Bulldogs (10-2) in the playoffs for the third time in four years.
"Our field is like concrete," Payne said. "It's the hardest field in the region. We wanted to come out and be intimidating and take of advantage of that. We want people to look at us and say, 'Man, that's a hard school right there.' "
In addition to the field, the size of Payne, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound Virginia recruit and Naleppa, 5-10, 226 pounds, proved to be too much pounding for the Bulldogs to handle. Payne carried the ball 36 times, 21 of them for 165 yards in the second half, with Naleppa often providing the lead block. After taking a 21-7 lead into halftime, the Cougars held the ball for more than 17 minutes in the second half, including a 9-minute 25-second drive that ended on the first play of the fourth quarter with Payne scoring from four yards. His touchdown made the score 28-10.
Oakton's second-half ball control limited the touches of Westfield All-Met running back Evan Royster. Coming into the game with 2,087 yards and averaging almost 10 yards per carry, Royster finished with 74 yards on 15 carries and had four carries in the second half. Minus a 26-yard run on the Bulldogs' last possession, it would have been Royster's lowest output since the second game of his sophomore season. The Cougars seem to have the antidote for Royster in the playoffs, holding him to 59 yards last year in a 33-0 region semifinal victory.
Royster is "the best player we've ever faced," Oakton senior defensive lineman Jared Ruppert said. "It just feels great to stop someone of that caliber. Once you get him down, they don't have any confidence, and that's the way to do it."
Rushing honors on the day went to Payne. While it was not surprising he was able to bowl over Westfield's defenders, his nimble feet were startling. He hurdled would-be tacklers numerous times, most notably on his four-yard touchdown run, when he took off from the 2-yard line. On Payne's fourth touchdown, a 33-yard run with nine minutes left, he juked two Bulldogs before running untouched the rest of the way for a score.
Payne's running helped counter a quick strike Westfield offense in the fourth quarter that reacted to Payne's touchdowns with two scores of its own.
"I just wanted to score on every possession," Payne said. "When they came out and kept scoring, I just thought here we go again. I got to go get another touchdown to keep the lead."
Coming into the game, it seemed Westfield might be able get over the hump of the Cougars. The Bulldogs had beaten Oakton, 31-13, during the regular season and had six position players selected all-district to Oakton's two.
"It doesn't feel good," Royster said. "We probably hate Oakton the most out of any team so it doesn't feel good to lose to them. They're the only team that's knocked us out of the playoffs ever."