James Monroe took the field for Saturday’s Virginia AA Division 3 semifinal at Kettle Run itching to get back to the state final for the second time in four years. The host team — three years removed from an 0-10 inaugural season — was equally eager to extend the best season in the program’s short history.

Led by an opportunistic defense that forced four turnovers, No. 11 Kettle Run held one of the state’s most prolific offenses to its lowest output of the season, and gave the four-time state champions everything they could handle. But with the Cougars trailing by a touchdown in the game’s final minute, Mac Graham’s last-ditch pass into the end zone fell incomplete and James Monroe held on for a 14-7 victory.

The Yellow Jackets (13-0) will face Brookville, a 38-27 winner against Cave Spring, on Saturday in Lynchburg in a rematch of the 2008 final.

“Not a lot of teams get this far. We’re all happy that we made it here, but we wanted to go further — and we thought we could,” Cougars senior running back Joshua Tapscott said. “It’s a heartbreaker, really.”

James Monroe, which came into the game averaging 51.8 points, put together a lengthy touchdown drive on its first possession, but the Cougars came right back when Tapscott knotted the score with a 17-yard touchdown run.

On James Monroe’s ensuing possession, Ethan Preston capped a four-play, 66-yard drive with a short touchdown run, but what looked like a shootout in the making quickly turned into a defensive battle as both teams struggled to hold onto the ball and take advantage of their opponents’ miscues.

Kettle Run (13-1) completed only two passes for 10 yards before its final drive, and the Yellow Jackets bullied their way through the Cougars’ line for six sacks — all on third or fourth down. On three of their final four drives, the Cougars moved inside James Monroe’s 10-yard line, but all three times they came up empty.

All the while, the Cougars’ defense kept them in the game, recovering four fumbles, including one in their own end zone to prevent a touchdown.

“We knew what we were going to see from them, and our coaches put us in the right situations to make plays,” said senior John Piette , whose fumble recovery gave the Cougars the ball at James Monroe’s 7-yard line midway through the third quarter. “It was like a roller coaster there in the second half.

Needing to go 90 yards with just more than three minutes left, Kettle Run marched to the James Monroe 16-yard-line, but a Ryheem Perrin sack on second down pushed the Cougars back to the 23. On fourth down, Graham lofted the ball into a crowd in the end zone where junior Michael Parker couldn’t quite come down with a difficult catch in traffic.

“I was right behind it,” Tapscott said. “It was as close as we could have been, we just didn’t finish.”