After opening the season with three consecutive losses, South County was at a turning point in its season. First-year Coach Gerry Pannoni felt it had the talent to succeed, but the pieces just had not fallen into place.

Nine weeks and nine wins later, South County is one win away from a Virginia AAA Northern Region Division 5 championship after upsetting No. 7 Stone Bridge, 25-3, Friday night in Ashburn.

The Stallions kept rolling behind the same formula that had turned their season around: a game-changing defense that capitalizes on turnovers and an offense with a knack for big plays at crucial times.

It is the first time since 2001 that Stone Bridge (10-2) will not play for a region championship, and the first time since 2006 the Bulldogs will not be a part of the state tournament.

“I knew we could get here,” Virginia Tech-bound senior Devin Vandyke said. “It was kind of hard when you lose three straight. But I knew everyone worked hard to believe, from the freshmen that came up to the seniors that have played varsity for three years. They all worked hard. . . and we brought it all together, and now we’re showing how good we really are.”

The Stallions (9-3) forced four turnovers, none more important than senior Andrew Rector’s 30-yard interception return for a touchdown with 4:35 remaining. It came on the heels of a South County turnover and turned a 12-3 game into a 19-3 cushion.

“It was huge. That was right after a turnover and we had to get it back,” Rector said. “That sealed the game.”

It was Rector’s third return touchdown of the year and yet another notch for a defense that has forced more than 40 turnovers in 12 games. Rector also rushed for a 21-yard touchdown and recovered a fumble.

After falling behind, 3-2, on a Stone Bridge field goal, the Stallions put together a 10-play, 87-yard drive capped by Shane Foley’s one-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes 8 seconds left in the third quarter.

That score was decisive considering how well the South County defense played. Stone Bridge rushed for just 80 yards on 36 attempts out of the single wing. The Bulldogs didn’t fare much better through the air, completing just five of 18 passes, with two interceptions.

“Film, film, film,” Vandyke said of the Stallions effectiveness against the Bulldogs single wing. “We lived in the film room this week. We studied everything they had, every tendency we had and we came out and there were no surprises.”