BERRYVILLE — The Clarke County football team has one of the best special teams weapons in the Bull Run District in senior kicker Kellan Dalton — for example, more than two-thirds of his kickoffs had landed in the end zone for touchbacks through six games this year.
But it’s not easy sending the ball 60 yards through 40-degree night air. And arguably the district’s best weapon overall gave East Rockingham the spark it needed to explode after halftime.
Senior Trenton Morris — the only All-Bull Run District first team selection for offense, defense and special teams — returned Dalton’s second half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to break open a six-point game, and East Rockingham pretty much rolled from there for a 41-7 win in the Region 2B quarterfinals on Friday night at Clarke’s Wilbur M. Feltner Stadium.
Sixth-seeded East Rockingham (7-4) — which lost 42-7 to No. 3 Clarke (8-3) on Sept. 27 — won its fifth straight game and will play No. 2 Buckingham County (10-1) in next week’s semifinals. Buckingham defeated No. 7 Page County 20-19 in overtime on Friday.
East Rockingham owned the second half. ERHS outscored Clarke County 28-0 and held the Eagles to minus-30 yards in the final 24 minutes thanks in large part to six of their eight total sacks (Ethan Mitchell had three). Clarke County finished with 92 total yards.
ERHS also had two of its three takeaways in the second half, both of which led to touchdowns. Clarke County certainly could have used injured star running back Peyton Rutherford, who had 299 yards and three TDs as part of a 413-yard Clarke County rushing effort in the initial game against ERHS.
But things might have turned out a little differently if not for the kickoff return by Morris (190 yards and two touchdowns on six carries and five catches for 52 yards and a TD), a linebacker on defense who is the Bull Run District’s Defensive Player of the Year.
When the second half started, it was Clarke County that had the momentum as a result of Danny Lyman blocking Colby Price’s 28-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the first half to keep the ERHS lead at 13-7.
“We were in a dogfight. It was a ballgame,” said Clarke County coach Chris Parker, whose team had only been outgained 126-122 by ERHS prior to Morris’ 41-yard run just before that field goal attempt. “[That kickoff return] definitely broke the momentum. We talked about it. We had to get a stop.
“We were very aware [of Morris], it’s just that kid had a career night. He did a heck of a job in all three phases of the game.”
Morris caught the ball on the right side and began angling left, and once he crossed East Rockingham’s 40-yard line there was no catching him. He then ran in the two-point conversion to make it 21-7 with 11:46 left in the third quarter.
“Last game we were used to their kicker kicking it all the way into the end zone,” Morris said. “I just don’t think [Clarke] was ready for it not to go in the end zone. I got it and saw the hole. Thanks to my blockers. They opened that hole up beautifully for me.”
Lyman (seven carries, 20 yards, TD, three catches 20 yards) said the kickoff return took away all the momentum the Eagles had built up with his blocked field goal attempt.
ERHS simply refused to give the momentum back. Things started to snowball after East Rockingham recovered a fumble by running back Jack Taylor (18 carries for 85 yards) at the Clarke County 20 with 8:03 left in the third. One play later, Colton Dean (17 carries, for 60 yards and two TDs) ran the ball in for a score to make it 27-7.
At that point, Clarke had to start throwing the ball more, and the Eagles struggled mightily to handle the ERHS pressure. Five of the sacks came after Dean’s TD run. Three plays after Dean’s score, Moses Condrey (two interceptions) picked off Eagles quarterback Colby Childs (6 of 10 for 12 yards and two interceptions) at the Clarke County 46.
Three plays after that, ERHS quarterback Tyce McNair pitched the ball ahead to Morris on a jet sweep left, and Morris made a quick cut back toward the middle after getting around the edge for a 27-yard TD to make it 34-7 with 4:57 left in the third quarter.
“Their physicality was a lot more intense [than in the Sept. 27 game],” Parker said. “We played pretty well in the first game, but their kids stepped it up and we had trouble blocking them. They were swarming to the ball.”
“They played more physical than us,” Childs said. “They ran everything perfect. They were sending ‘backers in different types of ways. They played better than us.”
Childs said the Eagles’ execution simply wasn’t as good as it was in the first matchup with East Rockingham. “We were missing tackles, we were missing holes, we were missing blocks, I threw some bad passes,” Childs said. “Overall, we didn’t play well. We should have beat them, but they outplayed us. They played better than they did the last time.”
East Rockingham broke through on the game’s fourth possession when Morris burst through a big hole up the middle into the clear, then cut toward the right sideline about 15 yards downfield for a a 72-yard touchdown with 1:13 left in the first quarter to make it 7-0.
East Rockingham forced a punt on Clarke County’s next possession and took over at the Eagles 39. Six plays later, ERHS spread the Eagles out with three receivers on the left and handed off to Morris, who blasted through another big hole up the middle for a 17-yard TD to make it 13-0 with 8:24 left in the second quarter. The extra point attempt went off the right upright.
Clarke County finally got on the board on its fourth possession. Taylor started the nine-play, 65-yard drive off with a 25-yard run to the ERHS 40, but it was Lyman who finished it with a sweep around the left side. He beat the ERHS defense to the front left corner of the end zone for a 2-yard TD, and Dalton’s extra point cut East Rockingham’s lead to 13-7 with 4:17 left in the second quarter.
Though Friday’s loss was a difficult one for the Eagles to take, Clarke County left Feltner Stadium knowing it had ample reason to feel great about its season.
The Eagles spent practically all season dealing with injuries, and at one point they had seven players out. They got healthier by the end of the season and managed to win four straight games without their best player Rutherford prior to losing Friday. Clarke County’s win last week against Rappahannock County clinched a share of the Bull Run District regular-season championship.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this team,” Lyman said. “It’s a great team. I loved every moment of it. District champions, you can’t be mad about that.”
“We had players go out with injuries, but people stepped up,” Childs said. “Everyone contributed to help us get to where we did.”
Parker said it was definitely a season to remember. The Eagles made their 13th straight appearance in the playoffs.
“I told the guys after the game I’m very proud of them,” Parker said. “They don’t want to lose. The football staff hates to lose. But we were co-district champs even though we had a lot of adversity. To get to this point, we were fighting, and kids responded.
“A lot of teams would love to be 8-3 in the playoffs. I feel bad that we lost, but you’ve got to pull from the positive.”