By ROB WITHAM
H-P Sports Correspondent
Patrick Henry head football coach Keith Braxton sat down for a postgame radio interview just moments after his Patriots had completed a come from behind 15-14 victory to seal a winning season and take the Tomato Bowl trophy back to Ashland. What was on his mind?
“The guys laid it all on the line tonight,” Braxton said to this reporter. “We were able to get a score at the end of the first half, which gave us some momentum. I told them all week, the Tomato Bowl is different. It will make or break your season. Twenty years from now, it’s the game people will talk to you about.”
Braxton understands, having played in the Tomato Bowl for the Patriots in the early 1990’s under legendary coach Ray Long. He still remembered his last game on the Lee-Davis field, which his team lost.
“It brought back a flood of memories. We as coaches talked about our Tomato Bowl memories this week, the ones we won, the ones we lost, how they stayed with us,” Braxton explained. “I don’t have to carry that one around anymore. The 1992 Tomato Bowl, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
But for his Patriots to get to hold the trophy for the first time in three years, there was a mountain to climb. It wasn’t the Mount Everest-sized 24-point deficit Patrick Henry overcame in September, 2010 to shock Lee-Davis, also in Mechanicsville, 25-24, but it was high enough. And, on a night where the complexion of the game changed on a dime when the weather suddenly changed, there were detours in trying to reach that elusive summit.
The Confederates (6-4) started the game strong, driving eighty yards on their first possession thanks to a 62-yard run by Josh Rice, part of a 165-yard rushing performance. Rice capped off the drive with a short touchdown run to put Lee-Davis on the board first 7-0 with 4:54 left in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Patriot offense continued to sputter, giving the ball right back to Lee-Davis, who compiled another drive which paid off early in the second quarter with a 26-yard pass into the end zone, and into double coverage, which Rice skied high to receive behind the Patriot defenders to extend the lead to 14-0 just a minute into the second quarter.
When Patrick Henry did get its offense on track, a penalty cost them dearly. Hunter Hart found Jamel Jackson along the Patriot sideline. Jackson shook a defender, then took off down the field for what looked like a 53-yard touchdown. A personal foul penalty, however, against Patrick Henry negated the score. Again, their offense stalled and they were forced to punt.
A line drive kick, however, bounced off of the Lee-Davis return man, and Patrick Henry pounced on the football at the Lee-Davis 26 with new life. The Confederate defense needed a stand, and got one, stuffing the Patriots, who lost five yards in their short-lived trip to Lee-Davis territory, turning the ball over on downs at 7:07 left to halftime.
It was time for Patrick Henry’s defense to show spirit, and they did, sacking Lee-Davis quarterback Zach Lass twice to force a punt and gain good field position at their own 48. In a drive that took just over two minutes, Patrick Henry finally broke through as Samandre Williams punched it in from four yards out with :52.2 left in the half, making it 14-7. That score was critical, since Lee-Davis would open the second half with the football.
The Confederates drove down the field on that first drive, all the way to the Patriot 12-yard line. Facing a fourth down, needing five yards, Lee-Davis went for it, but Lass’ pass was incomplete, the Patriot defense getting another key stop. It would be Lee-Davis’ turn to make impact defensively, and, in spite of a 61-yard run from Terrance Oxendine which helped Patrick Henry advance to the Lee-Davis 22, on his Senior Night, defensive end Ty Mills found Hart for a huge fourth-down sack to end Patrick Henry’s hopes to tie the game at 5:35 left in the third.
By this point, word was traveling through the stadium that a big rain cell was headed toward Mechanicsville. There was already a monsoon falling at Hanover where the Hawks were battling Atlee, and it was headed for Tomato Bowl 59. Patrick Henry forced a stop, got the ball back and drove deep in Lee-Davis territory. But a pass into double coverage was intercepted by Jamir Johnson in the end zone, and Lee-Davis continued to cling to the seven-point lead.
Clinging to the now-wet football would be another story. On the very next play, Lee-Davis fumbled, and Jackson recovered, scooping and scoring the would-be tying touchdown from eighteen yards out with 11:27 remaining. Rian Pecci-Young’s extra point, however, was no good, but, at the end of the point after try, Pecci-Young was down.
Braxton and the trainers came out to check on their kicker. Braxton was also looking for a penalty flag. Rian left the field under her own power, and, just afterward, the head official signaled a personal foul, roughing the kicker, on Lee-Davis. Pecci-Young couldn’t return for the next snap, so Patrick Henry had to go for two. The stage was set for the wildest two-point conversion in Tomato Bowl history.
It started simply enough on a snap to Hart at quarterback, a simple sneak which quickly morphed into a rugby scrum which lingered around the goal line, then moved, slowly, like a summer tick on your arm, towards the left side of the end zone. After seven and a half seconds, finally a whistle, and a signal. Hart had broken the plane, and Patrick Henry not only took their first lead at 15-14, they had stolen momentum from the home side of the field.
There was still almost a quarter to play, and Lee-Davis marched down the field into the red zone, then promptly fumbled. Patrick Henry recovered, but, on their first play, they coughed the football right back to Lee-Davis. The Confederates advanced to the Patriot four-yard line where they faced a fourth down with 5:31 left. After calling timeout to discuss their options, Lee-Davis opted not to try for what would have been a go-ahead 21-yard field goal, the elements clearly having an effect on the decision, and opted to go for it. Lass fired a bullet into the end zone, but it fell incomplete. Patrick Henry had the ball and the lead, but needed to hold onto the pigskin and kill some clock.
Oxendine broke off a 23-yard run to earn a big first down. A Lee-Davis personal foul meant another Patriot first down. At 1:43 left, the Confederates had to call their final timeout. Patrick Henry couldn’t get the game-sealing first down, so punted back to Lee-Davis, who had to drive 63 yards in :39.7 with no timeouts. A fourth down pass with :17 left fell well short of the intended receiver, and Patriot Nation began celebrating their 29th Tomato Bowl victory.
The Class of 2018 for both schools finished 2-2 against each other, Patrick Henry having won at Lee-Davis in 2014, while the Confederates won at home in 2015 and in Ashland a year ago.
The latest edition of the oldest rivalry in Hanover County, and now one of the oldest rivalries in the Richmond area, will be remembered for physical play, missed opportunities, a sudden change in weather which affected the outcome, and, in the end, the wild early fourth quarter sequence which was a fumble recovery for a touchdown, a missed extra point, a penalty, and a wild two-point conversion which, in the end, made all the difference.
Oxendine finished the night with 129 yards rushing, continuing his standout season. If the senior played for a higher profile program in the area, he would be widely known. Right now, he’s Patrick Henry’s secret weapon. To Braxton, he’s even more.
“He’s a big man in a small man’s body, always plays above his head. Little dogs don’t know they’re little dogs. They’re just dogs, and that’s him,” Braxton noted. “He’s been great in the locker room. He is our explosion. That’s the guy that goes for us, and makes the rest of us go.”
Oxendine, Hart and the rest of the seniors hope to extend their season, and Patrick Henry careers, by another week when they travel Friday to Culpeper to face an unbeaten Eastern View in the first round of the Region 4B Playoffs. By virtue of winning the Tomato Bowl, Patrick Henry jumped over Midlothian for fifth place in their region after the Trojans lost Friday to James River. A win Friday would likely mean a trip to Dinwiddie, another unbeaten team, in the second round. The Generals are looking to return to the Class 4 State Championship game for the second consecutive year.
Lee-Davis is backing into postseason play after losing their third straight game to finish regular season play at 6-4. The good news is, as the sixth seed in Region 5B, they make a return trip to Chappell Stadium to face Henrico High School in the first round Friday night, where just two weeks ago, they fell short 27-20. Should the Confederates be able to avoid the turnover bug that plagued them in the team’s first meeting, Lee-Davis can certainly extend their season with a win.
Meanwhile, Atlee and Hanover finished their season battling each other, and, in the second half, Mother Nature. After a first half that saw 50 combined points, including a 26-0 run for Atlee to take a 29-21 halftime lead, both teams could find the end zone just once in the soggy second half, as the visiting Raiders took a 36-28 win. Atlee finishes the season at 3-7, while the Hawks end 2-8 for the second straight season. 2017 marks the first time since 2005 where there was a high school football season with both the Raiders and the Hawks missing postseason play.
NOTE: The Region 5B First Round Game between Lee-Davis and Henrico will be the “Game of The Week” on WHAN Radio, and can be heard Friday night at 6:30pm on 102.9 FM, 1430 AM, and online at www.hanovercountysports.net. The game is also on the TuneIn Radio app on “Radiall.”