For the organizers of the first-ever Big River Rivalry all-star high school football game, the scenario could not have been any better.
On a sunny, unseasonably warm day, a big crowd gathered on the final shopping Saturday before Christmas at the still-new Day Field on the campus of Randolph-Macon College to watch top players from north of the James River battle their counterparts from the south.
All that was left was the game itself, and it did not disappoint.
In the end, a player from a winless team made the play to preserve his only victory of 2013, and the first victory in the Rivalry series, as John
Marshall’s Cedric Bridges blocked a game-winning 24-yard field goal attempt to clinch the North’s 35-34 victory.
“It was a nice casual day, then, all of a sudden, my head’s already hurting, I was losing my voice, my throat was getting dry,” Atlee head coach Roscoe Johnson said.
Johnson was one of seven head coaches that comprised the North staff.
“The North? We wanted to win,” he added.
The North squad was home to nine Hanover County players, all of whom saw time on the field. The biggest impact player? Hanover linebacker Brennan Gary, who finished his high school career with at least six tackles, including one for a loss on L.C. Bird star tailback Earl Hughes, who rushed for over 3,000 yards in the Skyhawks’ second straight championship season.
“There was a lot of good competition out here, so I was just trying to show everyone what I could do,” Gary noted. “Their (South) line wasn’t that physical, and I felt I was quicker than that and I could beat them to the ball.”
Gary’s performance defensively was overshadowed on the North by their MVP, Highland Springs defensive back Assad Powell, who had two interceptions, recovered a fumble and blocked an extra point, the margin of victory. Powell gave credit to his head coach for getting the North’s defensive unit ready for action.
“It’s easy to get ready with a great coach like coach [Loren] Johnson,” Powell said. “There were a lot of great defensive backs on our squad, but I was confident I could do the job.”
Powell’s first interception, the second turnover by the South in as many drives to begin the game, led to the first score in Rivalry history; a 31-yard touchdown run by J.R. Tucker running back Kyriee Warren for a 7-0 North advantage. Hughes fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, and the North marched back into the end zone five plays later on a 2-yard run by Quentin Fowlkes of Thomas Jefferson.
The South settled down, going on a four-and-a-half minute drive spurred by Hopewell quarterback Tabyus Taylor, completing three passes in a row of 13, 11 and 14 yards en route to a 35-yard field goal by Midlothian’s Jay Klein that hit the left upright and bounced over the crossbar to cut the North lead to 14-3.
Highland Springs quarterback D.J. Johnson ended the day with 184 yards passing and a touchdown. It was when Benedictine signal caller Bryce Hamilton took over in the second quarter that the South turned the tide. Hamilton threw an interception on his first possession, setting the South up at midfield. Lee-Davis defensive end Donald Kidd threw Hughes for a 2-yard loss on the first play, but two plays later, Taylor threw a screen to Petersburg’s Markeice Street, who rambled 63 yards, alluding most of the North defense himself, for a score to make it 14-10.
After the North missed a field goal, the South took its first lead with 3:25 left to halftime when Manchester wideout Jonathan Duhart caught a short pass, then raced 47 yards to paydirt for a 16-14 lead.
The North retook the advantage on the second half opening kickoff when Hermitage star tailback Nate Roscoe jetted up the right sideline for an 85-yard touchdown return. The South counterpunched with an eight-play, 66-yard drive, culminating in a 15-yard Taylor touchdown pass to Wesly Reed of Dinwiddie. Powell blocked the point after, and the South’s lead was one at 22-21.
Johnson’s return to the offense was the spark the North needed, as he charged down the field in six plays, hitting Douglas Freeman wide receiver Sinclair Farinholt from 15 yards out to retake the lead with 6:56 left in the third quarter.
On the South’s next possession, Gary had two tackles, including his third for a loss, before Powell intercepted a Taylor pass back at his own 11. But Hamilton, back in the game for the North, would fumble on the final play of the third quarter, and the South recovered at the North 22.
This time, Taylor would be on the receiving end of a touchdown pass from Trevor Luke of Thomas Dale. But again, the South missed the point after. The North clung to a 29-28 lead. Hamilton drove the North past midfield, then threw an interception. Five plays later, Taylor rushed in from 6 yards out to take the lead. Taylor missed a Luke pass attempt on the two-point conversion, but the North was called for interference. On the retry, Taylor opted to run right and fell well short. The North had 5:20 left to overcome a 34-29 deficit.
Johnson returned, using just under four minutes to lead the North on what would be the game-winning drive. They reached the South nine, then were flagged for holding. From the 25, Johnson fired a laser to his sideline. The pass was hauled in beautifully by Glen Allen wideout Tre’shawn Blackston to get back to the 9-yard line. Two plays later, Roscoe scored his second touchdown from 7 yards out. A two-point attempt failed.
In a game where the South offense relied on big pass plays to stay in the game, they hit one more in the final minute down a point. Taylor found Duhart for a 60-yard completion to set up first and goal at the North 8-yard line. But they fumbled, a Taylor rush netted just 2 yards, and they called timeout to set up the final field goal try.
After a North timeout, Klein set up for the attempt. Flying from the left side of the line, Bridges stepped into his moment in the warm December sun, diving, arms outstretched, to block the kick barely after its genesis from the turf. The North broke out in celebration; the South, boasting players from two state champions, L.C. Bird and Dinwiddie on its roster, slumped in disappointment.
The Big River Rivalry had the big ending it was hoping for.
Atlee’s Tye Burriss, Patrick Henry’s Si Strong, and Hanover’s Harrison Elam, Scott Denton and Josh Harris all saw significant playing time, making contributions to the North’s success. Atlee center Nick Clarke, who will also play in Saturday’s Chesapeake Bowl all-star game in Virginia Beach, played left tackle and elsewhere.
But it was the Confederate Kidd who summed up the day best as he celebrated on the Day Field turf with his Lee-Davis coaches and North teammates.
“It was a good matchup,” Kidd said. “Most importantly, we wanted to stop the run first. They couldn’t drive the ball on us; but they did make big plays.”
None, though, bigger than the Bridges block, allowing a young man who hadn’t tasted victory since training camp opened in Northside Richmond in August to finally celebrate. His teammates for the week gladly celebrated with him.