Less than a minute remained in Oakton's game against L.C. Bird on Saturday when Jackson Kibler made the play that saved Oakton's state title hopes. With his team leading by five points, the senior linebacker read the L.C. Bird wide receiver's pattern and leaped in the air to snatch an interception at the 1-yard line.
"There was no way he was getting that ball," Kibler said.
Kibler's attitude could have described the entire Oakton defense Saturday in the Virginia AAA Division 6 semifinal. His interception was the biggest, but by no means the only key defensive stop for the Cougars, who pulled out an arduous 19-16 victory before 1,975 fans to advance to their second state championship game in four years.
After taking a 19-14 lead midway through the third quarter, Oakton thwarted three long L.C. Bird drives into Cougars territory. Skyhawks junior running back Dominic Taylor was relentless the entire day, setting a single-game state playoff record with 36 carries, notching 135 yards and a touchdown.
Kibler's interception didn't put the Cougars (11-2) in the clear. Two plays later the Skyhawks defense gang-tackled Oakton quarterback Kevin Houghton in the end zone for a safety. But Oakton defensive back Sean Purcell recovered a Skyhawks fumble on the ensuing drive to secure the victory with 16 seconds left.
"I gave it everything I had left," said senior defensive lineman Curtis Eward, who contributed to two fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter. "I don't even know how I got to them; I kept working and we kept working."
L.C. Bird (10-3) played almost as impressively on defense. After combining for 324 yards and six touchdowns on the ground last week in Oakton's Northern Region final victory over Westfield, the Cougars' vaunted rushing duo of Virginia recruit Keith Payne and Taylor Naleppa was held to 76 yards on 23 carries.
"I noticed those kids at Oakton walking a little slow and being a little banged up," L.C. Bird Coach David Bedwell said. "That's just our style of play. I hope we were the most physical team they've played all year long. They got a great team."
But Oakton had other players pick up the slack. Houghton and senior wide receiver Ervin Garner both had career-best days. Houghton was 9 of 14 for 233 yards and two touchdowns. His lone mistake was a second-quarter interception by Dominion District defensive player of the year Eric McBride, who returned the ball 47 yards to give the Skyhawks a 14-6 lead. Garner had not caught a pass in the Cougars' first two playoff games, but he reeled in five passes for 136 yards Saturday, including a 76-yard score in the first quarter.
No one was more thankful for the stellar performance through the air than Payne. He fumbled the ball when the Cougars could have run out the clock with just over two minutes remaining, giving L.C. Bird a chance that ended with Kibler's interception. As soon as the game ended, Payne sank to he knees with his head on the field.
"I felt like I had let my team down," Payne said. "I fought so hard and we fought so hard this whole season. I rode their backs and they rode my back. In the end today it just came all together. All I could do was just fall to my knees."
With a grueling game completed, and one more left to play, Eward put it best.
"I'm exhausted now," he said, "but I'll be exulting tonight."