Heading into Saturday's Division 5 state championship game, Stone Bridge head coach Mickey Thompson knew there were certain things his team had to do for any chance of knocking off the athletic, undefeated and nationally ranked Phoebus Phantoms: slow the game down; play between the tackles and avoid one on one matchups with Phoebus' talented skill-position players; take the small plays Phoebus offered and try to keep the big plays away from the Phantoms.
But, after Phoebus' tailback extraordinaire Tyree Lee took the hand-off on the Phantoms' first offensive play and raced for a 56-yard touchdown, it was clear the Bulldogs would have a hard time sticking to Thompson's game plan.
Despite a furious rally in the second quarter to overcome a 13-0 deficit, the Bulldogs gave up too many big plays and turned the ball over too many times to keep pace with Phoebus, which captured its third straight Division 5 championship over Stone Bridge with a 36-17 victory.
"I just thought we were outplayed," said Thompson after the game. "You're not going to beat Phoebus in wide open spaces, they have way too many athletes. You have to go right at them and take your time."
The Bulldogs made every effort to stick to Thompson's game plan early on, despite Lee's opening touchdown run. On its next drive, Stone Bridge opted for its heavy package, featuring defense linemen Jonathan Allen and Calvin Hollenhorst as lead blockers for tailback Marcus Harris. The Bulldogs rode the gritty running of Harris and drove the ball 58 yards in ten plays all the way to the Phoebus 15-yard line.
Facing fourth and one, the Bulldogs opted to go for it rather than attempt a field goal. Harris took the handoff and immediately received a crunching hit from a Phoebus defender. The hit knocked off Harris' helmet, and he appeared to lunge for a first down sans helmet. But a referee blew the play dead as soon as Harris lost his helmet, and the ball he was marked just short of a first down.
After taking over on downs on its own 15-yard line, Phoebus gave Stone Bridge a dose of its own power football medicine. The Phantoms engineered a 14-play, 85-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Lee. Spencer Rositano blocked the extra point limiting the Phantoms to a 13-0 lead.
"Offensively they moved the football too quickly and too fast, scored too many points so we couldn't keep them in that box and we had to start spreading the field and trying to make plays athlete against athlete and that's just not going to happen," said Thompson explained afterward. "They pretty much dictated the whole game, the game plan, the flow of the game, by getting off to such a quick start scoring points."
Things went from bad to worse for the Bulldogs on the very next offensive play. Quarterback Brian Rody dropped back and threw deep down the middle of the field to Umer Nassir who was blanketed by Phoebus defenders, and Phantom DaShawn Arnold came away with the interception. With a 13-0 lead, the ball and all of the momentum, the Phantoms seemed to be resurrecting the ghosts of past state playoff matchups against the Bulldogs.
But much like in last week's game against Osbourn, Jonathan Allen made a play that at least momentarily sparked some life into the Bulldogs. Forced into a third and long situation by the Bulldog defense, Phoebus quarterback Jordan Roby dropped back to pass and Allen sacked him for a big loss.
Stone Bridge took over on its 37-yard line following the Phoebus punt. After a key fourth down conversion near midfield, and a big run by Adrian Thomas, quarterback Brian Rody was able to find Dan Chrost in the corner of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass. The score cut the Phantoms' lead to six, and set-off a string of wild plays that shifted the lead and momentum back and forth between the Bulldogs and Phantoms in a span of less than three minutes.
After Chrost's score, the Bulldogs attempted a high and short kickoff hoping to catch the Phantoms off-guard. The play worked perfectly, as a nearby Phoebus' return man simply watched as the ball bounced and came to a stop on the thirteen-yard line. Kyle Gouveia dove on the live ball, and the Bulldog offense took over.
On the next play, Rody rolled right and found Rositano wide open for a 13-yard touchdown. The play and ensuing extra point gave the Bulldogs a 14-13 lead and ignited Bulldog fans who traveled to Charlottesville for the game.
Given the success of the previous "pooch" kickoff, the Bulldogs attempted the same kick after the Rositano touchdown. This time, Phoebus return man Romond DeLoatch at least attempted to receive the ball. However, the ball bounced off of him and was again recovered by the Bulldogs and the offense drove to the Phoebus 5-yard line.
Facing fourth and goal, the Bulldogs opted for a field goal, and Ben Jamison booted the chip shot to extend the Bulldog lead to four with only 1:06 left in the half.
"You don't really want to attack Phoebus, you want to take what you can get, take points when you get a chance," Thompson said about the decision to kick the field goal, "I wanted to make sure that I didn't give them any momentum going into the half."
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, DeLoatch quickly atoned for his kickoff blunder and swung momentum right back to Phoebus. On Phoebus' next play, Roby dropped back and found the 6-foot, 5-inch wide receiver in the middle of the field, and DeLoatch finished the job, shedding two would be Bulldog tacklers and sprinting 66 yards for the touchdown. The score gave the Phantoms a 20-17 halftime lead. DeLoatch was a thorn in the side of Stone Bridge all day, racking up six receptions for 125 yards and a score.
The Phoebus defense and Lee dominated the second half. Early in the third quarter, the Phantoms pinned the Bulldogs deep in their own territory following a booming punt by Eric Enderson. A holding penalty forced the Bulldogs into a passing situation, and several Phoebus defenders combined for a sack on Rody in the end zone. The safety increased the Phantom lead and forced the Bulldogs to kickoff once again. The Phantoms quickly put the game out of reach.
On the fifth play of the drive, Lee raced 43 yards for another touchdown, giving the Phantoms a 29-17 advantage. Lee finished the game with 28 carries for 189 yards and three touchdowns.
"No. 5 [Lee] is a good back," said Thompson. "He broke a lot of tackles. We had guys coming up and getting good sticks on him, just didn't wrap up. He ran through some tackles. Between him and [DeLoatch] they were tough to stop on offense."
Any hope for a Bulldog comeback were dashed when defensive back Breon Key intercepted a Rody pass and returned it 86 yards for the game's final score early in the fourth quarter. Despite some mistakes, Phoebus proved it truly is one of the best high school football programs in the country.
"Nobody else has to play Phoebus every year. We do," said Thompson. "Some other people win titles on different levels, but nobody has to play Phoebus. They do a great job coaching. They play hard. They get after it. I have the utmost respect for them the way they conduct themselves. We got beat today. We got beat by a better team."
Despite the loss, Thompson was proud of what his team, especially the Senior Class, has accomplished.
"These guys, to get here every single year and come back every single year and win every game your supposed to win year in and year out, its a phenomenal group of players," he said.