By John McNeilly
Special to Viva Loudoun
Salem (Dec. 2, 2013) – The Woodgrove High School Wolverines are not used to playing from behind, turning the ball over, nor battling without their warrior and team leader, senior running back Josh Sweet.
The Wolverines (9-4) had to deal with all three situations in their season-ending 42-35 loss in the 4A North regional football semifinal to No. 2 seed Salem (11-2) on Friday Nov. 29.
The Wolverines had a three-plus-hour bus ride from Purcellville to Roanoke the day after Thanksgiving, ending up at Willis White Field, Salem High School’s home field, and an impressive football venue that has hosted the NCAA Division III national championship football game, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, every year since 1993.
Despite Woodgrove’s dominant postseason victories over Loudoun County and Eastern view, the Spartans presented a stiff challenge and boasted an impressive resume that included winning six state championships between 1995 and 2006. The Spartans’ head coach, Stephen Magenbauer, a former quarterback at the school, won two back-to-back (2005-06), and in 10 seasons has won over 100 games.
“They’re the best team we’ve played since Briar Woods and I think they’d give Briar Woods a run for their money,” Woodgrove coach Mike Skinner told the Roanoke Times after the game.
Despite a big crowd, an electric playoff atmosphere, and a spectacular setting, the game started ugly for the Wolverines.
Woodgrove elected to receive the opening kickoff only to turn the ball over after three plays. Senior quarterback Will Koester had his third down pass intercepted by Spartan defensive back Isiah Parker.
The pick gave the explosive Spartans’ offense excellent field possession in Wolverine territory. And they made Woodgrove pay with a 4-minute, 8-play scoring drive, with senior running back Devante Payne scampering from 5 yards out for a touchdown. The extra point established a quick 7-0 lead.
On the next possession, Woodgrove put together a lengthy series with Sweet pounding the ball, and two key pass completions for first downs. The 12-play drive, however, ended with Woodgrove turning the ball over on downs, mere inches short, at the Spartans 29.
Woodgrove also burned all three timeouts in the first quarter, which later impacted their play calling options at the end of the first half.
After the Spartans took the ball over on downs, and on second-and-long after a Salem illegal motion penalty, speedy Spartan running back Coleman Fox, whose father was a star fullback at Virginia Tech, flashed off the left side and quickly outran the Wolverine defense for a 75-yard touchdown. Fox finished the game with 233 yards on 21 carries and had 38 yards receiving on two receptions.
With just over a minute left in the first quarter, the Spartans held a 14-0 lead.
By contrast, the week before Woodgrove held a 14-0 lead over Eastern View after only three minutes elapsed in the first quarter.
This was new and uncomfortable territory for the Wolverines, which before this season had never won a playoff game
Woodgrove had a promising kickoff return by Dylan Mellor to midfield, but dug themselves in deeper by opening the second quarter with another turnover. On third and three, with Koester in the shotgun, the snap from center sailed past the Woodgrove quarterback and was recovered by the Spartans on the Wolverine 23.
On the first play from scrimmage, Fox coasted in easily for his second touchdown of the game and a 21-0 Salem lead.
The Wolverines settled down and responded with an impressive scoring drive. After a Spartans’ pass interference call put Woodgrove just over midfield, Sweet motored 36 yards to get his team into the Red Zone.
Koester pushed the ball over on a quarterback sneak to put Wolverines on the scoreboard but there was troubling news for the Wolverines as Sweet appeared to hurt his shoulder on a goalline attempt that would eventually knock him out of the game.
With eight minutes remaining in the second quarter, it was the Spartans up 21-7.
Woodgrove attempted an onside kick that failed, giving the Spartans the ball at nearly midfield.
Salem answered with its own impressive drive, mixing explosive runs with crisp, accurate passes from junior quarterback Austin Coulling, who finished the regular season with a 73 percent pass completion rating.
The drive was capped off with a short Payne TD run, his second, re-establishing Salem’s three-touchdown lead over Woodgrove with less than five minutes in the second quarter left.
On the ensuing Woodgrove possession, Sweet attempted to return, but his punishing style of running, coupled with an already-injured shoulder, finally put him down on the field in obvious pain. Despite a valiant effort to return, the Woodgrove warrior was done for the night with a still impressive 22 carries for 105 yards. He came into the contest with a D.C. Metro Area best 2,572 yards rushing according to AllMetSports.com.
After the Wolverines’ defense forced a Spartans turnover late in the second quarter, Mellor hauled in a long pass from Koester to get the Wolverines deep into Spartans’ territory.
However, without any remaining timeouts, and forced to limit its play-calling to keep the clock from running out, Woodgrove had to settle for a 28-yard field goal from Andrew Harper that cut the Spartans lead to 28-10 at the half.
Woodgrove came out in the second half breathing fire, stealing momentum from the confident Spartans. The Wolverines’ defense forced a three-and-out on Salem’s first possession of the third quarter.
And, although Woodgrove’s offense stalled at midfield, they punted to pin the Spartans back deep in their own territory. Two Salem penalties pushed them back further. Woodgrove fielded the resulting Salem punt in great field position, with the ball at the Spartans’ 46.
Sophomore Wolverine running back Charlie Clewis then showed why Woodgrove fans are so excited about his future. He ran hard and angry, plowing over several Spartans’ defenders and ultimately scoring on a 23-yard run, putting his team right back in the ballgame, 28-17.
But there’s a good reason why Salem has won six football state championships, with a 51-19 overall record in 25 post-season appearances. Just as Woodgrove and its fans started to taste a hard-fought comeback, virtually owning the third quarter, the Spartans answered with two long fourth-quarter touchdown runs – 36 and 45 yards – that put the game out of reach for the Wolverines for good.
Woodgrove scored on a late touchdown pass from Koester to Mellor, a productive pass-and-catch combination all season for the Wolverines.
But it was too little, too late.
In the end, Woodgrove falling behind early on two turnovers, being unable to stop the Spartans speedy running backs, and losing the team’s heart-and-soul senior running back Sweet, was just too much for them to overcome.
Regardless, the 2013 Wolverines’ varsity football season was enormously successful. In only the school’s fourth year, and in only Skinner’s second season as head coach (including a 2012 playoff appearance), the team won a district championship, beat football 5A powerhouse Broad Run and 4A perennial playoff team Loudoun County for the first time, easily won its first two playoff games, and got within two games of the state championship game.
And despite the loss of several key seniors next season, especially Cornell University-bound Sweet (2,677 yards on 380 carries in 2013 and 39 touchdowns), the Woodgrove program is clearly on the map and is deep with young talent and strong freshman and JV squads.
It would surprise few to see Woodgrove and Salem meet again down the road in the 4A playoffs.
After the game, Sweet, still icing down a sprained shoulder, and admitting that the reality of the end of his high school football career hadn’t sunk in yet, said, “What meant the most to me about this season was the run we had after the [Loudoun] County [regular season] loss. Rather than be crushed, we fought our way back. It really showed a lot about our guys and our character to come back from that to finish strong.”
When asked about his incredible, record-setting high school football career, which included running for over 5,200 yards and scoring 73 touchdowns, Sweet demonstrated why he’s so popular on and off the football field. With characteristic grace and humility, he thanked his offensive line and said, “You know, I’m glad I got the numbers and everything, but it was the wins we got as a team that mean the most to me.”
He also said it was an honor to be part of the founding class of the Woodgrove football program.
“At some points during my career, it was tough to see the future, especially being young and all. But the guys who grew up in this program worked as hard as we could to build something. At first it seemed so far out of reach to us, but everyone did an awesome job being committed. And now our program is definitely on the map for the younger guys.”
He also had a special word for his head football coach. “Coach Skinner is the best football coach in the area. We are blessed to have him. He’s a [Fairfax County] Hall of Fame coach with 30 years’ experience. He brings so much leadership and so many connections to colleges to help players out. There’s no question with him Woodgrove’s future is great.”
“It’s awesome to be a Wolverine,” said Sweet.
Salem 42, Woodgrove 25
WG 0 10 7 8 – 25
S 14 14 0 14 – 42
1: S Payne 5 run (Reighard kick)
1: S Fox 75 run (Reighard kick)
2: S Fox 24 run (Reighard kick)
2: W Koester 1 run (Harper kick)
2: S Payne 4 run (Reighard kick)
2: W Harper 28 FG
3: W Clewis 23 run (Harper kick)
4: S Fox 36 run (Reighard kick)
4: Ramsy 45 run (Reighard kick)
4: Mellor 22 pass from Koester (Mellor pass from Koester)
WG: Sweet 22-105, Clewis 9-73, Mellor 2-11, Koester 4-(-3).
S: Fox 21-233, Ramsey 5-52, Payne 5-30, Hunt 4-30, Coulling 3-0.
WG: Koester 10-22-1, 113 yards; Sheehan 0-1-0.
S: Coulling 4-7-0, 76 yards
SG: Mellor 4-55, Pantaleo 4-39.
S: Fox 2-38, Gladden 2-28, Parker 1-10.