Stone Bridge players watch the Highland Springs football celebrate following their win in the State Championship game
Highland Springs’ Juwan Carter hit Chris Thaxton with a go-ahead three-yard touchdown pass with seconds left, and the Springers overcame a late defect to defeat Stone Bridge 35-29 for the 2016 5A State Championship held at Hampton University.
With the win, Highland Springs has won two-straight state titles, both over the Bulldogs. With the defeat, Stone Bridge has now lost in six of its seven state championship appearances.
It’s the latest disappointment for a program that has come so close so many times since winning it at in 2007. Seeded No. 3 in the 5A North Region in this year’s post season, the Bulldogs rolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs before pulling of a thrilling come-from-behind win at No. 1 Massaponax last week in the Region Championship.
They would have no final comeback against the No. 1 seed in the South Region, who trailed by one with 1:21 seconds left but quickly and calmly scored the game-winning touchdown in less than a minute of game time.
It was particularly disappointing for the Stone Bridge seniors, who last year also reached the pinnacle of Virginia high school football only to come up short. Like last year, Stone Bridge seniors had to wait after the loss for the victors to stop celebrating near midfield so they could stand in line to receive the second-place trophy none of them wanted.
But this year, they wouldn’t have another chance for a title while wearing a Stone Bridge jersey. Several embraced on the sidelines, heads on shoulders. Others kneeled near the benches, weeping openly.
A few moments earlier, it seemed Stone Bridge would finally bring the championship trophy back to Ashburn.
Down seven points in the fourth quarter, Stone Bridge went on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a Bradley Block one-yard touchdown run. The Bulldogs then took a one-point lead on Leland Girdy’s edge sprint to the front left pylon on the ensuing two-point conversion.
Stone Bridge head coach Mickey Thompson said his team knew going into the drive it would go for two points and the lead if they scored a touchdown on the possession. He didn’t know another poor special teams play would help give the lead right back.
The most problematic special teams error was the fourth-quarter kickoff that set up the Springers for the game-winning score. Stone Bridge had set up their opponents with great field position all game due to short, ineffective squib kickoffs and missed lane coverage by several of the players. Highland Springs’ Billy Kemp returned the final squib 36-yards to the Bulldogs’ 34-yard line. Four plays later, Carter found Thaxton in the back of the end zone to put his team up 35-29.
“(Special teams) has been our Achilles heal all year and we’ve been able to make up for it, but against a really good team it’s more difficult,” Thompson said.
Stone Bridge would have 30 seconds to try to respond. Appropriately enough, a last-ditch hail marry pass was intercepted.
The Bulldogs had to engineer the late comeback in large part due to Highland Springs’ seemingly unstoppable offense. After trailing 13-0 early, the Springers went on a 28-8 run to take a 28-21 lead. The Springers scored on its first four possessions of the second half.
Carter was 14 of 25 for 196 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winning throw. Conversely, Stone Bridge went one of nine through the air for two total yards. Highland Springs’ players had more interceptions, two, than Stone Bridge had completions.
In addition to his success through the air, Carter added 86 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown on the ground. Willie Harkless contributed 71 more yards rushing, 62 of which came on a long scoring run in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs jumped out to an early 13-0 lead thanks in large part to its ground game. Block had the first two of his three touchdown runs in the first quarter and finished with 96-yards on 22 attempts. Playing in their last high school football game, Girdy and fellow running back Joshua Breece finished with 79 yards and 213 yards, respectively. The team finished with a whopping 409 yards on 70 carries, doubling up the Springers in time of possession and rushing yards
While the Bulldogs had no problem chewing up the clock and picking up yards, they struggled finding points in several pivotal situations. Quarterback Easton Turner was picked off in the end zone early in the third quarter, and Block missed a short field goal shortly before half time.
Combined with the poor kick offs that set up the Springers’ talented offense with excellent starting field position, the missed scoring chances in the red zone were too much for Stone Bridge to overcome.
“We just need to find better kickers and we needed to handle the ball a little bit better in the red zone in the first half,” Thompson said.