As the Atlee student section, “The Rage Cage” exited their permanent bleacher location in the final minutes of the game to prepare to storm the field, their team, the Raiders, still had a few preparations to finish themselves to ensure a storming would be appropriate.
Surviving the final 28-point performance of Highland Springs’ offense in the fourth quarter, Atlee advanced to 8-1, leaving their home field on Senior Night in celebration mode, tinged with a huge sigh of relief. The final score read Atlee 49, Highland Springs 42, and the Raiders are a win away from clinching the number two seed in the Class 5A South Central Zone playoffs that begin Nov. 15.
“As Coach [Richard] McFee (the defensive coordinator) always says, ‘bend but don’t break,’” said Atlee head coach Roscoe Johnson. “Highland Springs is a great team. They have a lot of speed, and a lot of times we thought we had them, they would break out. They were very elusive.”
One man whose elusiveness is unexpected, but whose impact is unmistakable, is Tye Burriss. The senior was everywhere Friday night, sacking Springers quarterback D.J. Johnson, catching passes, but most of all doing what he does better than anyone in the Central Region: returning punts.
Burriss set up the first score on a 41-yard punt return to the Highland Springs’ 8-yard line. Quarterback Reid McCoy would score from a yard out two plays later for a 7-0 lead. The Highland Springs offense started slowly, punting three times in their first four possessions. After a long kickoff return by Marcus Taylor set the Springers up in Atlee territory, they advanced into the red zone. But their fourth and goal attempt for six from the 10-yard line was stopped. The Raiders took over.
Atlee commenced a long 90-yard drive extending into the second quarter, ending on another McCoy run, this time from 11 yards out, for a 14-0 lead with 8:35 left until halftime.
The Springers turned to their special teams for another spark, and they responded, as Alex Wilson took the ensuing kickoff down the far sideline 91 yards to paydirt, putting Highland Springs on the board at 14-7.
Both teams traded possessions, positioning Burriss for another shot at punt return glory. Punter Ryan Buzzard thought he had kept Burriss at bay with a short, line drive effort, but Burriss took the ball off the ground at the Springers’ 45 and took off. Burriss got the necessary blocks, and at 2:19 to go in the half, it was 21-7.
But Johnson, the four-year starting quarterback for Highland Springs, finally found the offensive spark just before intermission, scoring from 6 yards out with 38 seconds left to make the halftime score 21-14.
In the second half, Atlee’s offense would complete timely passes, but the running game finished off a performance rarely given up by a Highland Springs defense. After a diving interception by Ja’Qui Givens atoned for a lost fumble by McCoy on the opening possession of the second half, Loumond Dandridge picked up 73 of his 178 yards rushing on a dash down the right side, knifing through and outrunning the rest of the Springer defenders on a one-play trip to the end zone.
Three minutes later, Lamont Stubbs earned 11 of his 144 yards on the ground, going untouched into the right side of the end zone. Atlee led 35-14 with 5:16 left in the third quarter. Add in 86 rushing yards from McCoy, and the Raiders rushed for 408 yards against Highland Springs, a tribute to the carriers, but especially to the men up front who paved the way.
“We lost some good linemen last year, but I knew with the young linemen returning, from Alec Eberle, Nick Clarke, C.J. Tilton, [Scotty] McCombs and [Austin] Cannon, Dellaripa, I knew that with these guys coming back, we were going to be special,” Johnson noted.
Highland Springs never gave up, twice cutting three-possession leads to single digits. They scored twice in the next six minutes to cut the lead to 35-27 with 11 minutes still to play. The Raiders answered both touchdowns with another touchdown run by Stubbs of 33 yards, then a pass to, who else, Tye Burriss, to end the Raider scoring.
But as the Rage Cage began to make its way to the stadium field fencing, Highland Springs stormed back once more, as on a fourth and goal, Johnson scrambled, then hit Greg Dortch in the back of the end zone for a score, then later ran around left side from 10 yards out to make it 49-42. The last score was set up on a 58-yard hook and lateral completion that landed in Alex Wilson’s possession, racing down the sideline to the Raiders’ 8.
But Buzzard’s final onside kick attempt didn’t quite get the height needed off the turf bounce, landing safely in the hands of an Atlee Raider. Then, and only then, could Roscoe Johnson and his staff exhale, and briefly celebrate another milestone win in this, his seventh season at the helm at Raider Nation.
“I don’t have to motivate these guys. They understand the situation. They don’t care who we play; we want to get into the playoffs,” Johnson explained.
Johnson’s only win against Lee-Davis came in a 42-35 double overtime victory in the 2011 Division 5 Regional Semifinal.
The victory vaulted Atlee over Douglas Freeman into the #2 seed in Class 5A South Central Zone playoff standings with a week to play. A victory cements that seed, and with it, two available home playoff games. They would also avoid a meeting with top-seeded, unbeaten defending state champion L.C. Bird until the Central finals Thanksgiving weekend.
But a loss at Lee-Davis could mean just one first round game and a tougher first-round opponent. So the Raiders have a lot to play for.
Lee-Davis has even more. The Confederates (5-4) turned to their junior workhorse running back Blake Stattelman, who carried 34 times for 246 yards as Lee-Davis held off Armstrong 37-28 to stay alive in the 5A South playoff race.
For the evening, Lee-Davis held the eighth and final playoff berth. But Mills Godwin, who entered the evening ninth, garnered more VHSL rider bonus points for their victory over J.R. Tucker, and with a game to go, Lee-Davis is on the outside looking in again.
The good news is this: if Lee-Davis can upset Atlee Friday, they would earn enough bonus points beating an eight-win team from the 5A classification to overcome any Godwin advantage. Mills Godwin (6-3) finishes their season Saturday at 3-6 Thomas Jefferson, a 3A school. Defeating a 3A school yields six bonus points. Defeating a 5A school yields 10. With Lee-Davis just a fraction of a point behind Godwin entering Week 10, it will only take a few bonus points to seize, permanently, the final playoff spot.
In other Week Nine action, Patrick Henry zoomed to an early lead at Deep Run before allowing a Jack Click-led comeback that resulted in the Wildcats’ first home win of 2013, a 42-35 victory that left both teams at 2-7. Patrick Henry’s final chance to force overtime was squandered on a fumble inside the Deep Run 5-yard line. Patrick Henry will finish the 2013 season Friday at home celebrating Senior Night against 8-1 Douglas Freeman.
Meanwhile, Hanover fought valiantly, but there was too much Donovan Dowling to overcome, as the Varina Blue Devils beat the Hawks 35-20 to drop Hanover’s record to 4-5. Dowling had 108 yards receiving, including a 47-yard touchdown catch, an 84-yard punt return for a second half score, and an interception.
Varina moved to 8-1 as they ready for their traditional season finale against rival Highland Springs, now 7-2 after the Atlee loss, while Hanover now goes to face Glen Allen in the regular season finale. The Jaguars (4-5) are currently 11th in Class 4A South playoff standings, Hanover is 13th. The top 16 make the postseason. The Hanover/Glen Allen winner is definitely in, but the loser will still likely earn a berth, though probably a lower seeding. The Hawks are 3-0 all-time against Glen Allen.
(Atlee at Lee-Davis will be the WHAN Radio Game of the Week this Friday night, beginning at 6:30 p.m. on 102.9 FM, 1430 AM, and available online at HanoverCountySports.net.)