The Stone Bridge Bulldogs had the lead early and had the lead late, going toe-to-toe and down-to-the-wire with the defending state champions in a game that was this close.
Final score –
Stone Bridge Bulldogs (12-3) 13 0 0 16 = 29
Highland Springs Springers (14-1) 0 7 7 21 = 35
1 / 7:59 – Stone Bridge TD (Bradley Block 1-yd run; Bradley Block kick)
1 / 2:27 – Stone Bridge TD (Bradley Block 1-yd run; 2-pt run failed)
2 / 11:27 – Highland Springs TD (Juwan Carter 19-yd run; Jack Notley kick)
3 / 3:17 – Highland Springs TD (Juwan Carter 13-yd pass to Isaiah Winstead; Jack Notley kick)
4 / 11:23 – Stone Bridge TD (Joshua Breece 22-yd run; Joshua Breece 2-pt run)
4 / 11:06 – Highland Springs TD (Willie Harkless 62-yd run; Jack Notley kick)
4 / 8:35 – Highland Springs TD (Juwan Carter 48-yd pass to James Jackson; Jack Notley kick)
4 / 1:22 – Stone Bridge TD (Bradley Block 1-yd run; Leland Girdy 2-pt run)
4 / 0:26 – Highland Springs TD (Juwan Carter 3-yd pass to Chris Thaxton; Jack Notley kick)
Armstrong Stadium, Hampton University, Hampton, Va. (December 10, 2016) — Often it is said that losing close feels worse than losing big.
The Bulldogs of Stone Bridge High School lost close – extremely, maddeningly, awfully close – but it must have felt big.
The Bulldogs had the lead with 82 seconds left. They had it when the final quarter began. They had it long before their opponents ever got it, and twice they grabbed it back soon after they lost it. Early on the Bulldogs grabbed that lead and made it grow, and later on they fearlessly went for two to seize it back. Having the lead in the ballgame was the sole, unifying, driving force in the Bulldogs’ collective psyche, from the coaches to the players to the fans.
Each of those groups could feel the ultimate prize within their reach when Leland Girdy accepted a handoff from his longtime best friend Joshua Breece, scampered down the line, sidestepped a tackle and strode in to score two huge Stone Bridge points – the first one to tie, the second to go ahead, erupting the blue-clad side of the college stadium into a wild and prolonged roar.
It was like the roar Breece brought about when he wrestled and churned for the go-ahead score early in the fourth…and like when Jack Kosko and the Bulldogs’ determined defense stopped a 4th-&-short…and like when Dohnavyn Jefferson batted down a couple TD-seeking passes, one early, one late…and like when Brian Fredrikson and the Bulldogs’ bruising offensive line steamrolled a one-yard path to the promised land for Bradley Block not once, not twice, but three times.
The Stone Bridge Bulldogs entered this championship tilt prepared, expectant and hellbent on coming out with the win, and they damn near got it.
The biggest trophy again went to the Springers of Highland Springs High School. In nine years with the program’s control, native Floridian Loren Johnson has harnessed Division I-quality Virginia athletes in Richmond’s eastern reaches and molded consecutive state title teams – a single one of which the school hadn’t produced since 1961.
Despite his and his players’ evident pleasure, it wasn’t long into Johnson’s postgame comments that he took note of the fierce determination of the competition he’d just endured.
“That’s a tough football team that obviously came here to win,” said Johnson. “They had a great game plan. You have to give a lot of credit to Mickey”– the younger man paused, correcting himself –“Coach Thompson and his staff. They were ready to play.”
Johnson is right to use a title of respect referring to Stone Bridge head coach Mickey Thompson. Johnson was guarding receivers for Virginia Tech in the late 1990s as Thompson was constructing a state champion contender at Park View. He was trying his hand in the pros as Thompson was building, from scratch, one of the Virginia High School League’s most consistently dominant programs at Stone Bridge, one that’s won 175 games over the last 15 seasons and been in seven of the last 12 state championship games. He took over Highland Springs when Thompson was in the midst of a six-year span with an average of 13 wins per.
The man almost universally known in Bulldog Nation as Mickey came excruciatingly close to claiming the biggest trophy for the second time ever, and the first time since 2007. Though he didn’t get a chance to hold the hardware, Coach Thompson got to hear words of praise from the seniors who’d just fought their final snap for him.
“The coaches and the players, some of the best guys I’ve ever been around,” Jefferson said. “Being a part of two state championship runs, that’s not something everybody gets to say.”
“This is probably going to be one of the best moments of my life,” Breece declared. “Playing for Coach Thompson, he’s one of the best people I know. He’s definitely a mentor. I just wish we could have done it for him.”
It was only when discussing Thompson that anything approaching a smile neared a Bulldog’s face. Those faces were solemn, though their heads were held high.
On multiple occasions during the season Thompson has spoken of the particularly close relationship that exists between the coaching staff and this year’s body of players. In the season’s toughest moment, with the title just forever whisked from grasp, the head coach doubled down on the sentiment.
“I’ve had a lot of great teams over the years, but as a group of guys, I really like this team,” Thompson stated.
One Fine Football Game
About the contest itself, the lead Bulldog made no bones about the one part of the football game that made the greatest difference after 48 minutes of play: the foot.
“The poor kicking game we have created short fields for our defense all day,” the Bulldog head coach stated. “We were squibbing the ball because we knew we couldn’t kick it over their heads, and they return kicks like crazy.”
Staked to the precious 29-28 lead, the Bulldogs squibbed a grounder that Highland Springs picked up, hit a lane and immediately flipped the field right back around, landing on the Stone Bridge 34.
“It was a decent squib, but we ran out of our lane and gave them a lane,” the coach said. “That’s been our Achilles heel all year. We’ve been able to make up for it, but against a good team it’s difficult.”
Two first-down plays by the speedy Springers later set up college-bound quarterback Juwan Carter for a rollout to the right from three yards out, and he found a receiver, Chris Thaxton, running open across the middle to clinch the championship.
Both squads had playmakers who came to make plays. The Bulldogs’ Paul Moore made the game’s first play on the very first play, recovering Ricky Rocha‘s game-opening on-side kick to give Stone Bridge the ball, the extra possession and the early momentum.
Thompson’s famed single-wing went to work, moving the ball and the chains. Breece barreled to the six, and three plays later Block barged in to convert a fourth-down into a six-pointer.
Defensive lineman Kellis Martin flushed Carter from the pocket to force a fourth down, and the Bulldogs ganged up to turn it over. Breece ripped off some hard runs amid Girdy’s dash to the Highland Springs 18, and the Stone Bridge ground game ground out the yards till Block got the last one.
A missed two-point run – attempted after a Highland Springs off-sides brought the PAT halfway closer – represented a missing point the Bulldogs didn’t retrieve until the fourth quarter. But the big scoreboard in Hampton glowed with 13 points for the 5A North champions and none for the ones from 5A South.
Still fired up, the Stone Bridge defense halted the Springers for a second straight turnover on downs, stopping short a called Carter run. The opening quarter ended with the Stone Bridge faithful feeling fine.
The second began with the Springers finding life. Carter, who’s slated to suit up for nearby Norfolk State next fall, ripped off runs of 14 and 19 yards to quickly reach the end zone and make the difference six.
As the half wound down, Jefferson stepped up. Carter was gaining rhythm with his fleet of fast receivers, reaching the Stone Bridge 20. He lofted it into the air again, but the senior all-region defensive back won a jump ball in the end zone, batting it down to force a fourth down that subsequently went unconverted.
With the Springers missing a scoring chance, the Bulldogs followed suit. Girdy came up with 16 yards and Breece spun around for a 10- and an 18-yarder, penetrating the opposing red zone yet again. A 24-yard field goal was set up, but was shanked feebly in another kicking-game miscue. So ended the opening half, the Bulldog lead an uneasy six.
“If we could have converted, built a little bit bigger lead, that would have been good for us,” Thompson assessed.
It wasn’t made any easier by their ensuing possession at the other half’s beginning. Breece provided a healthy kickoff return to near midfield, Girdy added a 13-yard run and Highland Springs offered a roughing penalty to get it inside the 20. Easton Turner, throwing into a cold breeze, saw his attempted TD pass to Daniel Thompson get closed on and picked off. More potential points untaken.
“When the ball’s in the air, they can make up time,” said the Stone Bridge coach about the Highland Springs secondary.
Highland Springs responded with a scoring drive the Bulldogs almost stopped twice. The Springers got a six-yard pass on a 4th-&-5 from midfield, then Carter improvised for a 20-yard run out of nothing. Later, a 3rd-&-7 pass was knocked skyward by Martin’s big paws, but it floated to Shy’Re McKeiver who took the fortuitous bounce forward eight yards. Two plays thereafter Carter whisked it to 6-foot-3 Isaiah Winstead, who elevated for the go-ahead score.
Trailing for the first time, the Bulldogs went with bread and butter. Out of their standard spinning, misdirecting single-wing formation, Girdy danced for 17 yards, Breece did a seven-yarder and Block had a 14-yard run, ending the third quarter with ball movement, game momentum and that all-important lead.
Breece, the all-region senior running back, raised the Bulldogs’ support to full blast when he, behind an offensive line on a jailbreak, took a direct snap and burst up the middle, spinning out of a tackler’s grasp to reach the end zone standing.
The Bulldog crowd went wild, and stayed wild when Breece eased in for two to reclaim the missing point from earlier. The Stone Bridge lead was seven.
But the Springers wasted no time in equalizing – and I mean no time. Set up on their own 38 to start the next possession, Willie Harkless zigged, zagged and zoomed 62 yards for a big-play score reminiscent of last year’s Stone Bridge-vs-Highland Springs crown showdown.
Tied at 21-all, the Bulldog offense allowed its first three-&-out, punting back. Highland Springs’ quick-strike athleticism struck again when Carter nailed James Jackson on a slant, and the receiver made one cut to find a path the rest of the way. In two and a half minutes of gametime, the Springers had doubled their point total.
Faced with the adversity of a late lead evaporating into a late deficit, the Bulldogs rose to the challenge. Converting an early fourth down propelled Stone Bridge on a long (80-yard) time-consuming (7:13) 16-play drive that pricked the Springer defense with a thousand little cuts, culminating in Block’s third one-yard TD plunge with under 90 seconds to go.
“Once we scored on that drive, I knew the play I was gonna call,” Thompson recalled.
He called that play during a timeout, and Girdy and Co. ran that play for a Bulldog 29-28 advantage, capping a winning drive punctuated by two winning plays made by a bevy of winning football players. The everloving fans of Stone Bridge knew it, liked it and showed it.
It would be 2016’s final hurrah for the Bulldogs on a Championship Saturday, as their lead and hopes soon vanished. But in order for a team to fall on the final play, they must have stood tall all game long. That’s what the Stone Bridge Bulldogs did.
The Band Was On the Field
The Marching Bulldogs band was given the honor of rendering the national anthem prior to kickoff. As they played, the color guard from nearby Langley Air Force Base dutifully presented the array of noble flags.
Stone Bridge stats –
Rushing: Joshua Breece 27-213, 1 TD; Bradley Block 22-96, 3 TDs; Leland Girdy 12-79; Josh Lawyer 7-17; Easton Turner 2-(-3)
Passing: Easton Turner 1 of 8 for 2, 2 INTs; Leland Girdy 0 of 1
Receiving: Leland Girdy 1-2
Highland Springs stats –
Rushing: Juwan Carter 13-84, 1 TD; Willie Harkness 3-71, 1 TD; Billy Kemp 1-19; Shy’Re McKeiver 4-9
Passing: Juwan Carter 14 of 25 for 196, 3 TDs
Receiving: James Jackson 4-83, 1 TD; Chris Thaxton 5-42, 1 TD; Isaiah Winstead 3-39, 1 TD; Billy Kemp 1-24; Shy’Re McKeiver 1-8
VivaLoudoun: We Live For Loudoun™
Written by Jason S Rufner
for Viva Loudoun Media Communications