The Bulldogs’ improbable climb is halted at the summit, as Highland Springs bends but doesn’t break.
Final score –
Stone Bridge Bulldogs (10-5) 0 7 0 0 = 7
Highland Springs Springers (14-1) 7 6 8 6 = 27
1 / 8:27 – Highland Springs TD (D.J. Anderson 61-yd run; Glaster Ellis kick)
2 / 8:48 – Stone Bridge TD (Chase Ridley 1-yd run; Tyler Alcorn kick)
2 / 3:57 – Highland Springs TD (Juwan Carter 22-yd pass to K’Von Wallace; Jack Notley kick missed)
3 / 6:01 – Highland Springs TD (Juwan Carter 55-yd pass to K’Von Wallace; Greg Dortch 2-pt pass to K’Von Wallace)
4 / 11:44 – Highland Springs TD (Greg Dortch 66-yd run; Jack Notley kick missed)
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va. (December 12, 2015) — It wasn’t the storybook ending we’d all hoped for. It wasn’t the grand finale that the young men deserved, that the entire program worked so hard to achieve. It wasn’t a legacy-making win for the premier high school football program in all of Loudoun County.
But it was a fine example of Bulldog want-to, the Stone Bridge kids playing hard and smart with heart till the last whistle. That final score is misleading. The stats indicated a more evenly matched pairing, and if you saw it, you know that the Bulldogs of Stone Bridge High School were worthy of being on that state championship field.
In the end, however, it was the Springers of Highland Springs High School with the title trophy, that institution’s first in 54 years – nearly four times longer than Ashburn’s Stone Bridge has even been around.
The scene in Scott Stadium was reminiscent of a balmy spring day, betraying the calendar’s insistence that it was in fact mid-December. The blue-clad throng of Stone Bridge supporters clashed with the black-clad Highland Springs fans across the field. The Bulldog marching band had the honors of producing our national anthem, doing so magnificently.
The game began. The Bulldogs owned the ball first, and promptly started driving. Joshua Breece ran for 11 yards. Chase Ridley made an aerial dive for a first-down catch, converting a fourth down and gaining 12 yards. Joe Thompson, who made that throw to Ridley, ran for three yards to sneak inside the Springers’ 30. The single-wing with the pass-threat was working.
Then, with one sudden, momentum-changing play early in the opening quarter, Mickey Thompson knew his team was in for a long day.
Joe Thompson took the shotgun snap and looked deep. Wideout Dewayne Winston was running endzoneward, more than a step behind the Highland Springs secondary. Thompson threw, and it looked for all the world like a touchdown connection was about to be made. Then the ultra-athletic Greg Dortch, committed to play at Wake Forest next year, chewed up real estate at an amazing rate, leapt high and snagged it, keeping it from reaching its intended target.
“When I saw us breaking open like we have done all year, and be open and throw good balls, and have them close on it, I said ‘wow, we’re in a situation here where we’re going to have to run the football and take our shots rarely instead of often,” the head coach said. “They closed things so quick. We had receivers open, but they had great closing speed…. If they get their hands on the ball, it’s dangerous. They have some great athletes and they make great plays in space. We didn’t want to give any of them to make a play in space.”
The overall team speed of the Springers was entirely evident. Open receivers soon weren’t. Running holes soon closed. Stone Bridge’s outside runs couldn’t turn the corner, and Highland Springs’ receivers blazed in open space.
“It was tough,” Joe Thompson said. “They made plays and we didn’t. That’s about it.”
And yet, at the half, Stone Bridge had more yards (130 to 114), more rushing yards (113 to 87), more first downs (10 to 4) more third-down conversions (2 to 1) and much more time with the ball (15:59 to 8:01). The Bulldogs stood within a single score of their opponents when the third quarter was almost half-done.
Stone Bridge’s defense was stout. On three of Highland Springs’ five full possessions in the first half, the Bulldogs forced the Springers to punt, including two three-and-outs. Cornerbacks Paul Ciavarro and Joe LeMaster deftly broke up a sure-fire scoring passes. It was only two long plays hit by the team from Richmond which gave them their 13 points by halftime.
The Bulldogs almost got on the board late in the first, executing a 15-play drive that went 76 yards. The first 71 of those came on the ground, as Stone Bridge’s famed single-wing handed the ball to Breece, Thompson and Winston for plodding yet positive moves of the chains. On fourth-and-six from the Springers’ 9, Thompson threw to Winston out of the backfield, but the senior back was halted after five yards, tantalizingly close to a fresh set on the doorstep.
The Bulldogs did get on the board early in the second, thanks to alert special-teams play. Tracking a punt, Dortch followed the bouncing ball as it careened beyond him, and attempted to pick it up. He laid a hand on it, but not two hands, and Ridley was right there to pounce. Stone Bridge ball, set up on the Highland Springs 17.
A five-yard run for Thompson and an 11-yard scamper for Breece set up an easy one-yard touchdown rush for Ridley, who cruised in untouched off the left side. Game tied.
So it stayed until the last third of the second quarter, when Springers quarterback Juwan Carter showed why he is a highly regarded prospect at that position. The strong-armed righty delivered an ideal 22-yard toss to the corner of the end zone where only his man could catch it, and that man did. The extra point failed, and Stone Bridge trailed by six at intermission.
In the second half, however, the Highland Springs athletes came gradually to the fore. Held to three-and-punt with their first possession, their second resulted in a touchdown when Carter hit K’Von Wallace along the sideline, and the speedster zoomed some 30 yards to the goal for a 55-yard play. A trick passing play out of a very offset formation was good for two points and a 14-point lead.
The Bulldogs came back with Ridley’s 17-yard run on a fourth-and-three to cross midfield, but that drive stalled thereafter. Highland Springs’ momentum continued into the final quarter, when a nine-play, 80-yard drive ended when Dortch pinballed around the Stone Bridge defense, turning a third-and-30 into a 66-yard TD scamper.
Stone Bridge’s defense returned to its previous stoutness when Dillon Carey recovered a Highland Springs fumble, but the offense could do nothing with the reprieve and the Springers ground out the remaining clock in the Group 5A state championship game.
In the postgame media room, Mickey Thompson’s normally robust voice quavered slightly, it having endured an afternoon of coaching and an aftermath of emotion.
“I thought the key to the game was our inability to move the ball on offense,” the veteran coach said. “Initially we were playing great defense, kept them from making too many big plays. If we could have ever gotten anything going offensively, I think it could have turned things around. We did some nice things on offense, but we couldn’t consistently win any matchups.”
He added more about his defense.
“I didn’t anticipate playing as great of defense as we did. I thought we played great defensive early.”
The Bulldog seniors were obviously hurting after the result, but had enough perspective to look into their future and see what their final season would mean.
“People,” linebacker Matt Fialdini said. “All the people on the team are all my friends outside, and we had fun practices and everything was a fun atmosphere. I looked forward to every practice and every game with my friends. I couldn’t ask for a better senior year.”
Quarterback Joe Thompson will continue his football career at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte next fall, but will remember his last Stone Bridge season for the camaraderie that developed over its course.
“I think from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, the kind of relationships everyone had has completely changed. I think that’s what allowed us to go on this run, was the tightness of our unit,” he said. “I’m definitely going to look back in 10 years and realize how much chemistry and real, real tight relationships we made as we entered the postseason.”
Offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis is bound to play for Old Dominion University. His high school days will stay with him far beyond his college days.
“The bonds we made this year, in 10 years they’ll still be there, and they’ll be there long after that, because this team means a lot to me,” Vastardis said as Fialdini clapped him on the shoulder. “I know everyone here is just family, really.”
So, the Bulldogs didn’t go down to Charlottesville and vanquish their Scott Stadium demons. What they did do was show up in force, together with their loyal fans, and play hard-nosed, aggressive football like we’ve seen them do for so many years.
Losing hurts, and losing at the season’s pinnacle hurts most of all. But the guys who earned the right to wear the Bulldogs’ colors carried on their school’s tradition admirably, adding to Bulldog lore with a remarkable run to yet another title tilt that no one saw coming – no one, that is, except for the guys who made it happen.
“This is one of the best groups I’ve ever coached,” Mickey Thompson said. “They’re great people, they’re great football players, they got better. I’ve never looked forward to practice the way I looked forward to spending time with these guys. This is my son’s senior year. It really couldn’t have been a better year except for this time right now. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had coaching.”
Hey, this is the Stone Bridge Bulldogs football program we’re talking about. They’ll come back. It seems like they always do.
Stone Bridge stats –
Rushing: Joe Thompson 19-67; Joshua Breece 13-64; Dewayne Winston 7-27; Chase Ridley 8-17, 1 TD
Passing: Joe Thompson 3 of 12 for 29, 2 INTs
Receiving: Chase Ridley 1-12; Brett Smedley 1-12; Dewayne Winston 1-5
Highland Springs stats –
Rushing: D.J. Anderson 14-107, 1 TD; Greg Dortch 3-84, 1 TD; Juwan Carter 7-20; Dashawn Young 8-17; Kenado Foster 1-13; Troy Minor 1-4; K’Von Wallace 2-0; Brandon Lambert 1-(-4)
Passing: Juwan Carter 8 of 13 for 125, 2 TDs
Receiving: K’Von Wallace 5-99, 2 TDs; Greg Dortch 2-21; James Jackson 1-5
The Stone Bridge senior class of 2016 (four-year record: 43-12) –
1 – Chase Ridley
3 – Nick McIntyre
4 – Joe Thompson*
5 – Paul Ciavarro
6 – Max Weis*
7 – Dewayne Winston
8 – Lawton Riggs*
9 – Matt Grillo
10 – Jackson Brown
11 – Brett Smedley*
25 – Omar Rosario
33 – Matt Fialdini
36 – Tyler Martin
50 – Stephen Sachs
51 – Ricardo Aguilera
55 – Ethan Seu*
56 – Alvaro Guerra
59 – Jack Hinkle
64 – Andrew Guillory
68 – Andrew Vastardis*
72 – Jarrett Hastings
90 – Tyler Alcorn
VivaLoudoun: We Live For Loudoun™
Written by Jason S Rufner
for Viva Loudoun Media Communications