By Allen Kha/Scrimmageplaycva.com contributor
Defending VISAA Division II state champion St. Anne’s Belfield opened its title defense on the wrong foot Friday evening, dropping an entertaining shootout against visiting Bishop Sullivan 32-27.
The Saints (0-1) started the game strong, scoring on its first possession mid-way through the first quarter on a five-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Branford Rogers. After the Crusaders (2-0) responded with a field goal near the end of the first quarter, STAB struck back with a 60-yard flea-flicker from freshman quarterback Jake Allen to Rogers in its next possession– the Saints scored a few plays later on a 10-yard touchdown scamper by senior fullback Charles Sipe.
After Bishop Sullivan responded with a 14-yard touchdown run from senior tailback Jeffrey Swoope with 6:27 left in the second quarter to close the score to 14-10 STAB, both teams traded touchdowns to end the half with the Saints leading 21-18.
Fresh off a score in the final minute of the first half, Swoope and his senior quarterback Brian Novak took over the second half. After Swoope intercepted an Allen pass to open the third quarter, Swoope and Novak accounted for all of the yards in Bishop Sullivan’s ensuing 38-yard touchdown drive, which gave the Crusaders a 25-21 lead.
“We didn’t start off strong, and that’s something we need to work on,” Novak said. “But we had a great offensive line and were able to run against a great team.”
STAB responded with a touchdown drive of its own to reclaim the lead midway through the third quarter, with Allen capping off a 63-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run. Rogers — the Saints’ leading rusher a year ago — went out of the game with cramps during the possession, forcing the freshman Allen to give STAB a chance to win its season-opener.
Bishop Sullivan ended the third quarter with a beautifully thrown 27-yard touchdown pass from Novak to senior wide receiver Brandte McIntyre — making the score 32-27 Crusaders — after STAB attempted an onside kick to capitalize on their previous score.
After trading four-and-outs in the beginning of a very chippy fourth quarter, Novak and Swoope led Bishop Sullivan on a sustained drive from their own 5-yard line deep into the Saints’ territory. Just as the Crusaders’ approached the red zone, however, Swoope fumbled the ball with 4:35 remaining in the game to give STAB one last chance to steal an opening-week victory.
Starting from their own 26-yard line, Allen led the Saints to the Bishop Sullivan 22-yard line with one minute remaining in the game. After STAB failed to convert on the first three downs, the Crusaders made their biggest defensive stand with 33 seconds remaining in the game by crushing an Allen to Rogers screen pass on fourth-and-10.
For Bishop Sullivan, Friday evening’s win was the team’s second straight win over a championship contender.
“Tonight was a hard game,” Swoope said. “[Allen]’s only a freshman? Wow. But we played well tonight and we’re glad to get a victory despite the penalties, physicality, and defensive struggles through some bits of the game.”
Bishop Sullivan’s coach Rick Cox added: “Defining moment for us tonight. We have two straight games against championship teams and pulled through. Despite adversity and some penalties tonight, we won. We know we can have a special season.”
For the Saints, however, the season opener forced the team to refocus on their playoff aspirations.
“Tonight was disappointing for me personally, just disappointing the team and not producing tonight,” Rogers said. “But Jake [Allen] stepped up tonight, especially following a guy like [former starter] Charlie [Murray, who now is a freshman walk-on at UVA], and gave us a chance to win. We’ll be ready next week.”
“Tackling was a big problem tonight,” STAB coach John Blake added. “We obviously aren’t in complete game-shape yet, but we need to play better defense.”
Blake, however, was still optimistic about his team’s title defense: “Our expectations [for this season] remain the same, and that’s to make the playoffs and go from there.”
Bishop Sullivan travels next week to Portsmouth Christian. The Saints, meanwhile, host Virginia Episcopal next Friday. Game time at STAB is set for 7 p.m.