Centreville's Ken Ekanem, shown earlier this season against West Potomac, had 10 tackles in the Wildcats’ state semifinal victory. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In the days leading up to Saturday’s Virginia AAA Division 6 semifinal at Hermitage, Centreville All-Met senior Ken Ekanem heard all about the Panthers’ vaunted defense.

The Central Region champion had given up more than nine points just once this season, and some considered the unit to be among the state’s most formidable in years. Ekanem said he thought the Wildcats’ defense was underappreciated.

On Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound lineman was determined to set the record straight. And he did.

Ekanem had 10 tackles — including six for loss, of which 41 / 2 were sacks — to spur the No. 4 Wildcats to a 10-9 victory and a berth in the state final for the first time since 2000. Centreville (13-1) will play Oscar Smith (13-1), which beat defending champion Battlefield 42-14, on Saturday at the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium.

“I was so dead tired,” Ekanem said. “I just put everything out there and played with all my heart.”

On the second play from scrimmage, Hermitage running back Derrick Green broke off a 76-yard run before being dragged down at the 3 by Connor Coward. Centreville held, however, and forced Hermitage to settle for a 25-yard field goal. The Wildcats tied the score at 3 just before the half on a 19-yard field goal from Jared Rondeau.

The Wildcats got the break they were looking for in the third quarter when a punt hit a Hermitage blocker in the back of the leg and Connor Culleiton recovered it at the 24-yard line. Six plays later, quarterback Mitch Ferrick found Chase Walter on an eight-yard touchdown pass to give Centreville the lead.

“We put one drive together and that was all we really needed, I guess,” Centreville Coach Chris Haddock said.

Hermitage (12-1) responded in the fourth quarter, getting two big pass plays to move deep into Centreville territory before scoring on a two-yard quarterback sneak with 7 minutes 31 seconds remaining. The extra point missed wide left, however, keeping the Wildcats ahead, 10-9.

With the game on the line, Ekanem — who had been a force throughout the game lined up mostly as a linebacker — made another big play.

Ekanem hit the Hermitage quarterback, forcing a throw that was intercepted by Coward with 3:33 left. And on the final drive, Ekanem picked up his most important sack when on third and 10 with 1:25 remaining, he dropped the quarterback for a 15-yard loss. A sack by senior Ryan Sepulveda on the next play, Centreville’s 10th sack, sealed the one-point win.

“We know Northern Virginia doesn’t get much of a rep for their defense,” Sepulveda said. “So we wanted to come show we were the better defense today.”