In each of the previous four playoff victories, Louisa County had one of those surges that vaulted them out in front. The Lions got another surge for a fifth straight week.
But some stories are just too perfect and don’t get their storybook ending.
Louisa County might not have been able to send its seniors and lauded coach Mark Fischer out with the title they wanted, but the effort in a 43-22 loss in the Class 4 championship against Salem was still inspiring.
“I was proud of them, they poured their guts out there for me,” Fischer said. “We had a fighting chance there, started to make a comeback but then the breaks just didn’t go our way.”
The Lions fell into a pretty deep hole early before making a second half comeback. A 6-play 74-yard opening drive for the Spartans capped with a 9-yard pass from quarterback Jack Gladden to Joseph Quinn then turned into a major problem just a minute later when Salem’s Nick Wade raced 45 yards on a pick-6 to make it 14-0 just three minutes into the game.
Louisa got on the board on its ensuing drive with one of the Lions’ patented 11-play grinders with Job Whalen taking a 4-yard carry into the endzone to make it 14-6 after a big passing play from Malik Bell to Raquan Jones put Louisa inside the five. Salem answered right back though with another one-two punch though. First the Spartans marched down the field 66 yards and with 56 seconds until the break, Tae Hale’s 2-yard run made it 21-6. Then early in the third quarter Gladden hit Quinn again in the endzone, this time from 12-yards out and it was 28-6.
“You know honestly you look at the scoreboard and you don’t realize that you’ve got that type of lead because you’re never comfortable with it,” said Salem coach Stephen Magenbauer.
He was right because the next 15 minutes featured a furious comeback attempt. The Lions answered and made things a lot more interesting than a 43-22 final suggests. Following Quinn’s second touchdown, Louisa raced back with a drive that took just 2:36 thanks to a 55-yard sprint from Whalen to set up first and goal and a 3-yard TD run from Bell soon after. After a 2-point conversion on a run from Bell, the Lions cut Salem’s lead to 28-14 with 7:06 left in the third. With Brandon Smith forcing a critical fumble that Matt West recovered on the ensuing kickoff to give the Louisa the ball right back, things got interesting real fast.
“That’s the thing about our team, you look across the board on our team and at any given moment any given kid can come up and make a big play,” Fischer said. “It was his turn to make that play.”
With a short field, the Lions worked their way to the goalline where Whalen was able to cash in his second rushing TD of the night with a 6-yard run. Another Bell 2-point conversion made it a 28-22 game with 4:22 left in the third.
“We realized that we weren’t coming off like we usually do — slacking off a little bit and not taking care of everybody,” said Louisa senior lineman Tony Thurston. “We realized we were in over our heads and had to buckle down and get everything straight.”
With the Louisa defense coming up with a stop, the Lions got the ball again and Fischer rolled the dice on a fourth down play from the Louisa 27-yard line that Bell was able to convert. The Lions marched into the redzone and faced fourth and four. This time, they only got three yards with Bell powering ahead when almost nothing was there on the play.
“It’s tough for the kids but I told them (that this game) is a metaphor for life and it’s about what you take away from this,” Fischer said. “It’s going to hurt for a few days but it’s supposed to. In time they’ll realize what they accomplished this year.”
Salem got the breathing room it needed on the next play from scrimmage with a 79-yard touchdown run from De’Angelo Ramsey with 4:52 to play. Then after Louisa turned the ball over, a 31-yard touchdown run from Hale with 2:13 left wrapped up the scoring.
“(Louisa) had all the momentum there in the second half and then we broke serve, our defense got a stop and we got it going again on offense,” Magenbauer said. “That’s just a credit to the maturity of our players. They have a no flinch attitude.”
Ramsey had a huge night for Salem as he picked up 256 yards on 22 carries. The Spartans became the first team all year to put up 400 yards of offense in the Lions as they finished with 418 and 305 of it on the ground. Gladden finished 9-for-16 passing with a113 yards.
On the other side of the ball, Whalen had his best rushing game of the playoffs with his 20-carry 173-yard performance. It was a postseason that helped cement him as the program’s all-time leading in rushing yards with his 5,135 rushing yards over the last four years.
“You could tell watching the film right away that (Louisa) is physical, doesn’t run its mouth, and just gets after it,” Magenbauer said. “They play with a lot of pride and so we loved playing against a program like that. We’re fortunate we came out on the winning side.”
Bell had 29 carries with 114 yards to finish off a 1,691-yard season on the ground. He also had 73 yards passing to give him 2,584 combined yards of offense this year.
The Lions finished with 383 yards of offense but four turnovers paired with a 2-for-4 showing on fourth down wound up proving costly.
Nonetheless, the Louisa seniors left Williamsburg with a 14-1 record. This teams is the only Louisa team to have ever won 14 games in a season. This group of Lions now sits on equal footing with the only other Louisa team to get this far, the 2006 edition which also fell in the Group 4A championship. While the feelings afterward were somber, the Lions didn’t go down without scratching and clawing.
“We made it to the show,” Thurston said. “We gave it everything we had, left it all out on the field.”
For the seniors, riding off into the sunset with their coach in the championship game was a wild journey.
“Honestly, I’d do anything for the man,” Thurston said. “If he asked me to do something, it doesn’t matter how crazy it was, I’d do it for him because I know he’d do the same things for me. All the seniors have that bond with him. We just look up to him like that.”
An undefeated regular season, a Jefferson District championship, a hard-fought Region B title. Sunday’s loss surely stings and Louisa may not have gotten the fairytale ending, but the story this edition of the Lions wrote? That’s going to stick around for a long time.