It is early December, which means the only high school football teams left playing in Virginia are the ones that have done just about everything right.
Woodgrove, Stone Bridge and Freedom-Woodbridge will all make a long trip south this week as they prepare to play for the state championship. Woodgrove and Freedom will be making that journey for the first time in program history, while Stone Bridge is playing in the Class 5 game for the third time in the last four years. The Wolverines will face Lake Taylor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, while the Bulldogs and Eagles will face Highland Springs and Manchester, respectively, at Hampton University.
The three teams have reached this point in different ways. Woodgrove had to hurdle the regional championship game after losing at that stage three times before, Stone Bridge had to beat rival Broad Run just three weeks after losing to it in the regular season, and Freedom had to topple defending Class 6 champion Westfield in the state semifinals.
But on Saturday, each team will pin its hopes on two of the same things: a strong defense and an effective run game.
“You just have to be able to run the football to win games in the playoffs,” Freedom Coach Darryl Overton said after a practice this week.
In Saturday’s 35-28 semifinal win over Westfield, Overton saw his offense take a hit when senior running back TyQuan Brown was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Brown is the centerpiece of the Eagles’ offense and recently became the all-time leading rusher in Prince William County.
Initially, Brown thought the injury he suffered on the team’s second possession was just a stinger. He reentered the game but felt hesitant. While he and his team sorted out the best plan of action on the sidelines, Brown’s backup, Julian Edwards, was tearing up the Bulldogs' defense. Brown told Overton that he could go if they needed him but that Edwards could also carry the Eagles to a victory.
“I knew that he could play well in that situation,” Brown said.
Overton said Edwards’s presence didn’t change anything about their offense, as the junior had already established himself as a weapon this season and was playing behind a tough and experienced offensive line.
“We stuck to the exact same game plan because we knew [Edwards] could execute,” Overton said.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup with Manchester, both Brown and Overton said the shoulder will not prevent him from playing. But the Eagles know that, even on the biggest stage, Edwards can provide a lot more than just a contingency plan.
Stone Bridge is also dealing with injuries in the backfield, as running back Jared Cole was knocked out of their semifinal win over North Stafford with a concussion in the second quarter. Senior running back Nick Mell, who often splits time with Cole, shouldered the load in the Bulldogs’ single-wing look and punished the Wolverines. He finished with 34 carries for 224 yards and five touchdowns.
“We weren’t trying to get the score every play, just four, five yards at a time,” Mell said after the game. “We just wanted to get down on the field and capitalize on every offense and stop them on defense.”
Coach Mickey Thompson said that Highland Springs, which beat the Bulldogs in each of their past two trips to the championship game, is good enough that if his team doesn’t move the ball early, it won’t bode well for its chances.
“We’ll try a few things, see if we’re going to be successful and what it’s going to be like,” he said Saturday. “You’ll know the first few plays whether we’re going to be in it or not.”
Thompson said Cole had been testing well all week and was likely to play against the Springers on Saturday.
At Woodgrove, senior quarterback Graham Walker has become a staple in the running game. Walker played his freshman year at Woodgrove before leaving for Battlefield. He played there for two seasons before returning to Purcelville.
He mostly ran an I-formation with the Bobcats, so Coach Mike Skinner initially didn’t view Walker as a running threat. In Walker’s first three games under center this season, Woodgrove didn’t call a single designed run for him.
But Walker’s size and speed convinced coaches he could be an asset, and he took off running from there. By the time the Wolverines reached the postseason, his legs were an integral part of the offense. In a first-round playoff win over Loudoun County, Walker rushed 38 times and finished with three touchdowns.
“There’s two types of quarterbacks: There’s the runners, and then there’s the throwers. It’s pretty rare you get both, and when you do you’re pretty fortunate,” Skinner said. “At this point [Walker] runs the ball 20-plus times a game. He’s a single-wing guy that throws it.”