CULPEPER — Sherando’s football team was in a dangerous spot when Culpeper County recovered an onside kick in the second quarter Friday night.

The Blue Devils had just gone up 21-6, having made the Warriors pay for a pair of penalties — just two of many called against Sherando in the game — on an 84-yard touchdown drive, one that negated a third-down stop and another that erased a Sherando takeaway.

Culpeper running backs Riley Harrison and Malachi Terrell had gashed the Warriors for much of the first half (each would eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark by halftime), and the Blue Devils, having recovered the onside kick after Terrell’s second score, were primed to deal more damage when they took over at Sherando’s 43-yard line with 8:13 left in the second quarter.

But the Warriors’ defense came up with a much-needed three-and-out, setting in motion the metaphorical snowball. From that point, Sherando’s defense clamped down on Culpeper’s running game and the Warriors erupted for 39 unanswered points in a 45-21 victory.

Sherando’s timely defensive stand was one of a few game-altering moments that went the Warriors’ way in the second quarter. Dylan Rodeffer, on the ensuing drive, scrambled for a 3-yard TD on fourth down, and the senior quarterback connected with speedy sophomore A.J. Santiago for a 49-yard touchdown pass as time expired in the first half.

Rodeffer said the defensive stand is what really altered the game.

“Although our offense was scoring, we needed [the defense] to stop whatever explosive plays they were doing, and they did it,” said Rodeffer, who passed for 296 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in the win. “They made it happen.”

Culpeper (2-5), playing its “plus-one” game at the end of the VHSL season, blitzed Sherando with Terrell’s TD runs of 39 and 19 yards and Harrison’s 63-yard scoring scamper early in the first half. After recovering the onside kick, though, the Blue Devils mustered just 89 yards of total offense.

“It’s all about the players,” Warriors senior two-way lineman Keith Gouveia said of overcoming another slow start, the second time Sherando has done that in two games this spring. “Our players, the mentality [toward] the whole bad start, you’ve just got to flip the switch. There’s a certain type of people, certain leaders that can just help the players get in the right mindset to flip it and keep going.”

Once the game got rolling in their favor, the Warriors didn’t stop.

Sherando followed the defense’s key three-and-out with a 75-yard scoring drive that included Cameron Sullivan’s 23-yard run and Rodeffer’s 32-yard pass to Santiago before Rodeffer scrambled for a score that cut Culpeper’s lead to 21-12.

The Warriors forced Culpeper to punt again late in the first half and, taking over at their own 32 with 17 seconds left, got a 19-yard pass from Rodeffer to Keli Lawson on first down before Santiago’s highlight-reel, 49-yard touchdown grab sent Sherando into halftime down 21-18.

Santiago raced straight down the left hash, streaking between and past a pair of Blue Devil defensive backs in the process, and hauled in a tumbling grab right at the goal line with no time left on the clock.

“When coach called it in the huddle I knew it was gonna come to me, I just had to prepare to catch it at that point,” Santiago said. “And I did, I came through.”

The catch was part of a huge night for the sophomore, who finished with eight receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns.

“I was more surprised that they left him wide open like that a couple plays,” Rodeffer said, “but it’s typical for A.J. He’s a fast kid and I think that really showed tonight. And he’s been preparing for this moment for a while now.”

Sherando opened the second half with an impressive drive that ended with Gavyn Blye’s 11-yard TD run that gave the Warriors their first lead. On Sherando’s second drive of the quarter, Rodeffer hit Santiago on a quick slant on a 21-yard TD that put the Warriors up 32-21.

After relying mostly on the ground game in poor weather in its opener against Millbrook, the Sherando offense showed its balance against the Blue Devils. Roddeffer completed 17 of 23 passes and threw for three touchdowns while spreading the ball around to six different receivers. Sullivan shouldered the load on the ground, rushing 22 times for 184 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown that capped the scoring with 3:52 left.

“We felt like we could’ve capitalized on [the passing game] last week but the weather did unfortunately play a big factor,” said Rodeffer, who threw his third TD pass to the 6-foot-5 Lawson (four receptions, 72 yards) early in the fourth quarter. “But we really worked this week to make sure our passing game could help open up the run plays to make us even more versatile.”

The Warriors finished with 508 total yards (296 passing, 212 rushing).

“The middle of the field was wide open, so you had so many one-on-one shots,” Sherando coach Bill Hall said. “We thought we had good matchups. We thought we had the matchup with A.J. all night versus the linebacker. Any matchup with Keli is a good matchup.”

Sherando gave itself some problems in the first half with 10 penalties for 89 yards. The Warriors finished with 15 penalties for 119 yards and they also missed a PAT and had two others blocked.

Hall said it was “frustrating” to trail while feeling like his team was running many things really well.

“I’m just proud that they responded,” Hall said. “We could’ve just kept doing the same things and just lost it. This is a really great group of kids who have been through a lot.”

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