The storybook ending was not to be.
On a night where the Atlee Raiders had a chance to take a giant step towards their goal of creating a football program within the upper echelon of the Central Region, the Raiders fell and fell hard to defending state champion L.C. Bird, 46-10 Friday night at Dutchman Field in Chester.
From the opening kickoff to the final gun, the Skyhawks showed why they have won 27 consecutive games dating back two calendar years. Their offense was unstoppable, their defense more than capable to end the best season in Atlee’s nearly quarter-century history at 11-2.
It literally began on the opening kickoff. Atlee won the toss and deferred, asking their defense to set the tone against Terrance Ervin and Earl Hughes, the quarterback and tailback primarily responsible for the 581 points scored by L.C. Bird in their first 12 wins. A personal foul penalty on the Raiders after the kickoff return gave Bird the ball at their 42 instead of their 27.
On the first play from scrimmage, Hughes took a handoff right up the middle, broke left and gained 43 yards. A second personal foul call – a face mask on the tackle – set the Skyhawks up at first and goal at the Atlee 10.
Three plays later, Ervin ran it in from 10 yards out for a lightning-fast 7-0 lead. On the play, Ervin was surely stopped at the line of scrimmage, but linebacker Tanner Ramey didn’t finish the tackle. It was an omen for a night filled with missed opportunities.
On Atlee’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Reid McCoy had Daniel Glymph behind the Skyhawk secondary. But he waited an extra second and underthrew the ball, giving Antoywn Cooper time to recover and almost intercept the pass. A quicker, longer strike in stride makes it 7-7, easily changing the tone of the game.
Atlee did strike on the next play, McCoy finding Tramell Carey on a slant pattern for 62 yards up the middle, but then they stalled, settling for a Ryan Molin 25-yard field goal. Bird led 7-3 with 7:12 left in the first quarter.
“When you get to this point of the season, you shouldn’t be making these many mental mistakes,” Atlee head coach Roscoe Johnson said. “We missed a lot of opportunities throughout the game.”
The Skyhawks would only line up once to punt. On fourth and three, they faked it, and Rasheed Worsham, their leading wideout, bounced off an Atlee defender and fell forward to the 42 for a first down. Bird drove down the field, and, spelling Hughes for a play, their fullback, Darius Gillus, who had six rushes all season, rambled into the end zone from 15 yards. The six-minute drive established Bird’s dominance. A missed PAT made it 13-3.
Early in the second quarter, Bird drove to the Atlee 32. They faced another fourth down, and talked it over in a timeout. In the end it was an easy decision, giving the ball to Hughes, who, rather than running behind his big line, bounced to the outside, taking advantage of the tight Raider formation, making the right corner and scoring the touchdown. A two-point conversion made it 21-3.
After another Hughes score, this time on a 46-yard pass reception from Ervin, the Atlee offense showed signs of life, driving quickly downfield and making a key 21-yard completion from McCoy to Tye Burriss. Ending an 86-second drive, McCoy ran in from 2 yards, making the score 28-10 with 1:07 left in the half. Receiving the second half kickoff, there was a glimmer of hope for Atlee.
But Bird ended the brief momentum swing by taking a page out of the Atlee playbook. The Skyhawks took 65 of the remaining 67 seconds in the half, marching down the field again, scoring on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Ervin to Hughes, as Devon Jackson’s swipe at the ball at the goal line on secondary defense whiffed. A missed PAT made the halftime score 34-10. Twice earlier this season, Atlee had scored touchdowns when given only 1:05 left in the first half.
Some Raider fans may have been scratching their heads at intermission at not only the score, but at the Atlee decision to throw most times on first down rather than run. Lamont Stubbs and Loumond Dandridge ended the night with seven rushes combined. Incomplete first-down passes forced more passing on second and third down, and, when a hurry-up offense goes three and out multiple times, not only do you give your opponent more chances to score, your defense wears down quickly.
“Every game [offensive coordinator] Claude Hataway Jr. studies film looking for weaknesses. We felt we had good matchups with our receiving core,” Johnson noted.
In another chapter of the book of missed opportunities, McCoy, who went 7-of-14 for 121 yards, had three of those misses dropped by different receivers who each had the ball between their jersey numbers, but let it get away.
Thus, the Raiders spent the second half mostly on defense, Atlee earned 130 total yards, only nine of them on the ground.
Meanwhile, Hughes rushed for 265 of his 423 yards in the first half, finishing the night just above his season average (9.4 yards per carry) at 9.6 on 44 carries. Two more Hughes TD runs, one in each quarter, accounted for the Skyhawks second half scoring.
Looking back, lineman Alec Eberle, now looking ahead to his days at Florida State, saw the chances, too, as they passed his team by on the cold Chester field.
“Fourth and goals have been our specialty (defensively) this year. The first touchdown was the beginning of the momentum,” Eberle said. “And the fake punt killed us. Our time of possession was so little, and our defense was just worn out.”
Eberle also noted one of two plays, the other well chronicled now on Twitter by Carey, where it seemed obvious Atlee had stripped Hughes of the football. Fumbles weren’t called on either play.
A missed tackle. An underthrown pass. Dropped passes. Strips not seen. Whether physical or mental, just or unjust, a team on the rise simply cannot perform as such and expect a signature victory. Every coach and player knew that as the final seconds ticked off the clock, and the season.
They also knew that the Skyhawks, in the end, outplayed them in all phases. Hughes finished with 423 yards rushing, while his team rolled up 600. A 46-28 final, rather than 46-10, would have meant a moral victory, and nothing more. But Eberle looks back on 2013 and finds plenty of positives in spite of the final chapter.
“What I’m most proud of is our ability to fight through all the doubt we received this year. I really felt we all came together and truly became a brotherhood through all the trials. I wouldn’t change anything or anyone on my team and would give anything to have a chance to play with those men again,” Eberle said proudly.
“We simply ran into a great LC Bird team that wanted it more than we did on Friday night,” Johnson concluded.
Atlee’s 11-2 finish will go down in Raider history for many milestones: most wins in a season ever, winning two playoff games in the same year for the first time, defeating Varina and Highland Springs in the same year, Varina for the first time since 1998. Had this happened a year earlier, the Raiders would have been Capital District champions for the first time in 15 years.
“My first impression of the accomplishments of this team are ‘Wow!’” Johnson said. “We are trying to change the Atlee High School culture and we are almost there. We want our school and community excited about football, and we are very excited about the players returning. Our JV program went 9-1, so we have a lot of talented skilled players and lineman coming up.”
But the Raiders do lose a lot of experience and production to graduation, including Eberle, Clarke, McCoy, Stubbs, Burriss, Glymph, Molin, Tanner Bazemore and Ross Gardner, among others.
The returning force includes Dandridge, Carey, Austin Cannon (another D-1 OL prospect who was hurt during the game), C.J. Tilton, Chad Vanlandingham, Tanner Ramey, Zach Jacobs, J.J. Givens, and freshman lineman Mason Cooper. They’ll need a new quarterback, and a new quarterback on defense to replace Burriss.
They’ll be young, but the Atlee Raiders will be back – a force in 5A South again – with the burning desire to take the next step.
Friday night, though, was not their night to step forward.
NOTES: Lamont Stubbs finished the year with 1,234 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. Dandridge also hit the 1,000 yard barrier with 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing, 13 total. McCoy was 171 of 271 passing for 1,754 yards with 17 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing touchdowns. Glymph was their leading receiver with 42 catches for 572 yards and eight touchdowns.
Tye Burriss may have been the team’s all-around MVP. In addition to his game-changing abilities as a punt returner (four returns for touchdowns and long, key returns in the Varina and Douglas Freeman playoff victories), averaging 25.8 yards per return, but he also caught 10 passes for 118 yards and the game-winning touchdown against Highland Springs. Best known for his defense, he led the team in tackles coming into the L.C. Bird game with 77, with two sacks and two interceptions.
Expect several Raiders, plus representatives from the other county schools, to participate for the North team in the first-ever “Big River Rivalry” all-star football game, Saturday, Dec. 21 at Randolph-Macon College.