Under normal circumstances, today would be the day that football fans would pack the stands for 12 high school games around the state for the Virginia High School League’s state semifinals.
Due to COVID-19, football players won’t get their shot at playing for a state championship berth until April if everything goes according to plan in the 2020-21 school year.
Any team that makes it as far as the state semifinals can truly call itself elite. Since the start of the 21st century, there have been only eight instances in which a team from The Winchester Star coverage area has advanced to the state semifinal round.
Though the area is still looking for its first state football title since Handley won the Group AA, Division 3 title in 1994, there have been some memorable runs in the last 16 years to end that drought. In chronological order, here’s a look at the five teams whose seasons have ended in the state semifinals in the 21st century. The area’s three state finalists in the 21st century will be highlighted next week.
State semifinal result: Lost to Poquoson 36-34 in Group AA, Division 3
The Judges had a wildly successful regular season in 2003, posting a 9-1 record, but were knocked out of the opening round of the playoffs by Monticello in heartbreaking fashion. The Mustangs threw a game-tying four-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal with 41.4 seconds left, then kicked the extra point to go up 31-30 at the Handley Bowl. A Hail Mary pass was then picked off in the Monticello end zone as time expired.
The 2004 team was not expected to fare nearly as well, as 18 starters departed from that 2003 team. Third-year head coach Tony Rayburn said after the season that the team’s goal going into the season was to finish above .500.
Though all of the losses were to excellent teams (7-6 to eventual to Group AA, Division 4 state finalist Harrisonburg, 20-19 to an 8-2 Sherando team) a 42-6 loss to Northwestern District champion Liberty left the Judges with a 4-3 record and with no margin for error to make the playoffs. Handley responded, beating Millbrook, Warren County and James Wood to grab the fourth and final seed in the Region II, Division 3 playoffs.
In the region semifinals, Handley rebounded from a 28-14 deficit against top-seeded Rockbridge County by scoring 17 unanswered points, with Max Sutherland’s 23-yard field goal with 19 seconds left to cap a 75-yard drive providing the winning points in the 31-28 contest.
In the region championship game, Handley traveled to Broadway to take on the Gobblers, coached by former Judges quarterback and freshman coach Reed Prosser, now Handley’s director of student activities. Broadway came in averaging 24.1 points per game during a seven-game winning streak, but the Judges posted their second shutout of the season and won 10-0 for their first region title since 1999.
In the Group AA, Division 3 state semifinals, Handley nearly pulled off a comeback at Poquoson that would have been even more impressive than its one against Rockbridge County.
A touchdown with 1:14 left put Poquoson up 36-21, then Handley recovered an Islanders onside kick at the Poquoson 49. Quarterback L.A. Anderson — the first person in Handley history to pass for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season — threw a nine-yard TD pass to Chris Baker to complete a 32-second drive, and the extra point made it 36-28.
The Judges then recovered Andy Headley’s onside kick at the Poquoson 42, and four plays later, Anderson completed a 26-yard TD pass to Chris Bach to make it 36-34 with nine seconds left. But on the two-point conversion attempt, Anderson couldn’t find an open receiver and had to run. He was tackled two yards short of the goal line.
“We knew we had some athletes with some ability,” said Rayburn after the season. “We just didn’t know how those athletes we had could play at the positions they were in. But the kids wanted to excel and ended up doing so.”
State semifinal result: Lost to Powhatan 21-17 in Group AA, Division 4
Despite an 8-2 record in 2004, Sherando did not make the playoffs. The four-team Region II, Division 4 playoff field was filled entirely with teams who received automatic playoff berths for winning a district title.
Led by third-year head coach Bill Hall, the 2005 Warriors returned just two offensive starters from that team, but they again went 8-2. This time, that was good enough to earn the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, and the Warriors did not waste their first postseason opportunity since the 1998 season.
In the region semifinals, Sherando traveled to Louisa County, which spared no expense on the experience by having a skydiver deliver the game ball, a fire-breathing lion, and fireworks. But it was the Warriors who had the dynamite finish. Down 28-21, the Warriors scored 27 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to emerge with a 48-35 win.
In the region championship game, the Warriors took on top-seeded and undefeated Harrisonburg, the defending region champion, on the road.
In a game that featured five lead changes, Sherando led 34-24 in the fourth quarter, but the Blue Streaks battled back with a field goal and a one-yard touchdown run with 32 seconds left to knot the game at 34.
In overtime, Sherando career (4,610 yards) and single-season (2,264 yards in 2005) rushing leader Joe Oher, a senior running back, plowed in on fourth down from the one-foot line on the extra session’s first possession, and the extra point made it 41-34. Three Harrisonburg incompletions preceded an interception by linebacker Brandon Ramey that ended the game and sent the Sherando players and fans into a frenzy. It was the Warriors’ first region title since 1997.
The Warriors then traveled to Powhatan for the Group AA, Division 4 semifinals. Sherando led 14-0 at one point and was up 17-14 late in the game, but a 48-yard touchdown pass with 2:19 left provided the winning points in a 21-17 Indians victory.
“This team far exceeded anyone’s expectations other than what they thought they could do as a group,” Hall said after the season. “They accomplished a lot of great things.”
State semifinal result: Lost to Bruton 10-7 in Group AA, Division 3
After going 10-2 and falling in the Region II, Division 3 championship game to Monticello in 2008, the Judges seemed primed for another strong season in 2009.
Though they lost seven defensive starters from the 2008 team, they brought back the reigning Winchester Star Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in running back Jeremiah Wilson and linebacker Leonard Grant, respectively. Both players would battle injuries, with Wilson (a future Maryland and James Madison player) missing half of the regular season.
The Judges proved to be unstoppable during the regular season though, winning all 10 games for the first time since 1994.
With Wilson back after missing the previous four games, top-seeded Handley opened the Region II, Division 3 playoffs with a semifinal win over Goochland. The Bulldogs twice took the lead on the Judges in the second half. But with 11:31 left in the fourth quarter, Wilson scored on a two-yard TD run to put Handley up 23-20 en route to a 30-20 win.
In the region title game, eventual Winchester Star Defensive Player of the Year David Carter had an interception on the third play of the game, Wilson had a 22-yard touchdown run 1:15 into the game, and the Judges would not yield any points until there was 4:17 left in a 33-7 win over Park View. The Patriots had scored at least 30 points in their previous three games.
That set up a semifinal showdown with Bruton in the Group AA, Division 3 state semifinals. which was pushed back one day to Sunday on the new artificial turf field at the Handley Bowl because of snow.
Bruton kicked a field goal with 48.6 seconds left to take a 10-7 lead. A Carter 28-yard kickoff return to the Handley 45 and a 40-yard drive over four plays put the Judges on the Bruton 15-yard line with 8.4 seconds left. But a 32-yard field goal attempt went off the left upright and failed to go through.
“We’re real proud of this group of kids, especially this group of seniors,” said Rayburn after the game. “They accomplished a whole lot of things. When they look back, they can be very proud.”
State semifinal result: Lost to Poquoson 10-3 in Group AA, Division 3
The 2010 Judges lost seven starters on offense, four on defense and 10 all-district players total from 2009. They still had a number of talented players — future Penn State lineman Derek Dowrey was entering his junior year after a 128-tackle, eight-sack sophomore season and would have 145 tackles and 10.5 sacks that fall.
Handley lost its first three games by an aggregate score of 90-31, falling to Harrisonburg (14-7), Briar Woods (27-0) and Fauquier (49-24). Each of those teams had outstanding seasons — Briar Woods went on to defeat Harrisonburg in the Group AA, Division 4 championship game, and Fauquier made the playoffs after an 8-2 regular season.
But after their first 0-3 start since 1985, Handley would lose only one more regular-season game. Moving Trae Peck (1,688 rushing yards, 18 TDs) from receiver to running back made a huge difference for Handley, with the Judges’ one loss (to Millbrook) over their final seven regular-season games coming in a game that Peck didn’t play in.
In the first year of eight-team playoffs for local regions, Handley earned the No. 1 seed in Region II, Division 3.
The Judges ripped through the region playoffs, beating Western Albemarle 30-7 in the quarterfinals, Monticello 19-0 in the semifinals (the Mustangs gained only 98 yards), and routing Warren County for the second time in 2010 with a 49-20 victory in which Peck rushed for 233 yards and five touchdowns.
That set up a matchup with Poquoson in the Group AA, Division 3 state semifinal, a road contest just like it was for Handley in 2004. The Judges outgained the Islanders 308-135, but Poquoson took advantage of a fumble and marched 49 yards for a TD with 3:18 left in the first quarter.
That was all the points the Islanders needed. Handley’s third turnover was turned into a field goal and a 10-0 Poquoson lead. Down 10-3, Handley nearly tied the game at the end, but four incompletions from the Islanders’ 23 ended the game with 16 seconds left.
“We always talk about Handley Pride and what it means,” Rayburn said after the game. “I told them I haven’t seen a team that displayed it any more than we have this year and today.”
State semifinal result: Lost to Salem 49-14 in Class 4
The 2016 Sherando football team went 5-5 and was the first Warrior football team to miss the playoffs since 2008. But it was obvious based on the young talent on that 2016 team that the Warriors would be much improved in 2017.
Sherando won its first four games by a total of 233-47, scoring at least 48 points in each contest. The Warriors lost the next two games by the same 31-28 score, first to Class 4 Northwestern District rival Liberty, then to Martinsburg (eight West Virginia Class AAA state championships since 2010).
After blowing out their next three opponents, Sherando ended Millbrook’s bid at a perfect season with a 35-22 victory in the regular-season finale, which gave the Warriors the district title.
Seeded fourth for the Region 4C playoffs, Sherando opened with a 27-10 win over Dominion. That set up another game with the Pioneers, the top seed in the region, and it was a classic.
Millbrook led 24-14 at halftime, and Sherando had been without First Team All-State linebacker JoJo Doleman, also a running back, since the three-minute mark of the first quarter because of an injury. He would not return.
Two TD runs by junior running back T.J. Washington (1,545 yards rushing, school-record 198 points), the second of which went for 41 yards, and a 30-yard TD reception by Washington from junior quarterback Hunter Entsminger (single-season school records of 2,736 yards and 33 TDs) with 9:26 left gave the Warriors a 35-24 lead.
Playing without starting quarterback Isaac Brown after he left the game with an injury with 2:40 to go in the third quarter, Millbrook cut its deficit to 35-32 and found itself at the Sherando 26 with 59 seconds left. But the Warriors’ pressure resulted in an interception by Washington in the end zone to seal the win.
That win earned Sherando a trip to Bealeton for a rematch with Liberty in the region final. The Eagles cut a 27-7 third-quarter deficit to 27-21 with 7:17 left. But the Warriors forced a punt on Liberty’s next possession, then Entsminger closed out an 11-play, 74-yard drive with a five-yard TD run with 1:15 left that closed the scoring at 33-21. It was Sherando’s first region title since 2013.
Sherando traveled to face two-time defending Class 4 state champion Salem in the Class 4 state semifinals. The Spartans dominated en route to their third straight state title, scoring on their first five possessions and taking a 35-0 halftime lead en route to a 49-14 win.
Sherando was without several key players at times in 2017 because of injuries, but the Warriors didn’t let that stop them.
“It’s about the next man up that we talk about all the time,” Hall said after the season. “It’s not about what you don’t have, it’s about what you do have. We had a few guys go down late in the season, but the next man would come up. We’re never going to make excuses for why we can’t be successful.”