Around 7 a.m. Saturday, the Tuscarora Huskies piled onto their team bus to kick off a long day of football. That afternoon, they would earn the biggest win of their season thus far: a 36-20 victory at Southwest Virginia powerhouse Salem in the Class 4 semifinals.

They had put together a strong week of practice to prepare for the Spartans and felt locked in. Now, they just needed to remain locked in for the 3½-hour bus ride to the game.

“Our coaches really did a fantastic job of getting us in that head space,” senior lineman Noah Gick said. “Because it’s a mental challenge to keep your heads in the game that long and stay focused on the task ahead.”

When you make it deep into the postseason, as the Huskies have done many times since the Loudoun County school opened 2010, home-field advantage can start to take on a new meaning. Not only do travel times grow as the bracket gets smaller, but opponents become more unknown.

Saturday’s game was the first time Tuscarora had faced Salem, a program that has won three state championships in the last four years. With a game such as that, a strong start can be crucial because it shows the team it can hang around with a reputable foe. It’s a sign that you belong at this stage of the playoffs and maybe the next one, too.

“It’s all about who has more comfort at the start of the game,” Coach Brandon Wheelbarger said. “Who can come out and be comfortable and execute. And they came out ready to play yesterday.”

Tuscarora, which will be making the third state championship appearance in the program’s short history, prides itself on a tightknit culture. Wheelbarger and his players believe it has the power to prepare them for any challenge, at any site, and they proved that early on in Saturday’s victory.

In a physical battle, Huskies sophomore running back Bryce Duke led the way with 203 yards rushing and four touchdowns.

“Our line is definitely what gave me that game,” Duke said. “Because when I went back and watched the film — some of those holes you could have driven a truck through.”

Duke had touchdown runs of 49 and 69 yards. With the Huskies’ offense hitting home runs, their defense spent a lot of time on the field trying to slow down Salem. The Spartans ran 71 plays on the afternoon, 27 more than Tuscarora.

“Our offensive approach is often more methodical, but with them hitting big plays our defense spent a lot of time out there,” Wheelbarger said. “They really worked to shut them down.”

The Huskies will face Lake Taylor in the Class 4 championship game Saturday at Liberty University. They are seeking the first state title in program history.