For the past four years, the vitality of Herndon’s football season has never extended past mid-October. By then, the Hornets’ playoff chances had been buried under a pile of lopsided losses, leading many players to mentally check out and turn their focus to the next year.

While this season— Herndon’s first under Coach Jeremiah Davis — has brought newfound hope during a 3-3 start, circumstances threatened to again place the Hornets on an early path of disappointment. Standout running back Lamik Bumbrey went down with a season-ending collarbone injury in an Oct. 10 homecoming loss to Edison and at halftime of Friday’s game against Virginia Conference 5 foe Chantilly, the Hornets faced a 20-2 deficit.

In the locker room, Davis kept his message simple, challenging his 33 seniors to take responsibility for leading the team to a better second-half effort.

“I asked them, ‘What can we do on defense to get this win? How are you guys going to sacrifice and step up for your teammates?’” Davis said. “That night, all four of our captains were junior defensive starters and they came up big, but in crunch time, it came from the seniors.”

Conner Johnson sparked Herndon in the fourth quarter when he snagged a 46-yard touchdown pass from Ryan McLaughlin for Herndon’s first touchdown. The play served to open up the field for junior running back Ronald DeCastro, who rushed for several first downs while filling in admirably for Bumbrey.

“Chantilly was trying to eat up the clock, so we knew we had to fight back and give ourselves a chance,” Johnson said. “Once we got some first downs and deep balls, the momentum started to shift.”

A four-yard touchdown run by McLaughlin cut the deficit to 20-15, but the Hornets still found their chances hanging by a thread in the final minutes. Needing a stop on a Chantilly fourth-and-one and having lost one of his defensive lineman to injury on the previous play, Davis sent in Jake Pavlecka, a senior who hadn’t played all game. Determined and bursting with energy, Pavlecka pushed back Chantilly’s center to create a fourth-down stop and give Herndon the ball.

“There were some adjustments but it really came down to who wanted it more,” Davis said. “[Chantilly] did a great job of converting third downs and making plays on us early, but we finally broke through.”

Herndon’s rally again appeared to be on the verge of unraveling on the final play from the Chantilly 5-yard line. The play called for McLaughlin to roll out right, but with no room to run on that side, the junior shifted back left, sending his receivers scrambling to find an open spot. The junior spotted Fawad Rahimyar open in the back of the end zone and after dropping the four previous balls thrown his way, Rahimyar pulled in the fifth to complete Herndon’s 22-20 comeback victory.

At 4-3, the Hornets hope to notch at least one more win to better their chances of qualifying for the 6A north region playoffs. Doing so won’t be easy, with No. 4 Westfield, No. 9 Centreville and Oakton as their remaining opponents, but Herndon’s players aren’t ready for their season to end anytime soon.

“We’re really treading new ground. We’ve never had an opportunity to play meaningful games this late in the season,” Johnson said. “I guess selfishly, our seniors wanted this year to be special and we knew it could happen because we had a really good freshmen football season. That’s been our motivation.”