At kickoff in Palmyra Friday night, it was 45 degrees and raining. Fans huddled under umbrellas and tailgate tents, the marching band turned out in ponchos, and both sidelines were dialed in for a high-stakes game that would have been widely ignored just a year ago.
“It’s playoff condition football; that’s one reason I’m glad we played tonight,” said Fluvanna coach Mike Morris. “I want to prepare them for later down the road. In a couple weeks, we might be playing the same team again.”
In a battle of run-first squads who both entered with 6-2 records and stood fourth and fifth in the Region 3C ratings, squarely in the hunt to host a first-round playoff game, it was Western Albemarle turning a pair of third quarter fumbles into touchdowns that propelled the Warriors to a 21-7 victory.
“I think tonight was all on our defense,” said Western linebacker and receiver Jack Lesemann. “We just crowded the box tonight because they do that wing-T. Our line really showed up.”
In the first half, Fluvanna’s ground attack edged Western’s, 120-89, with six players taking carries. However, the Warriors enjoyed a significant edge in field position, with their first three possessions starting at their own 49 or in Fluco territory. After each squad punted on its first possession, Fluvanna opted to keep the offense on the field for fourth-and-2 at its own 44. Western came up with a backfield stop on Dametrez Christmas who was sweeping right.
“They were able to bottle us up on crucial third- and fourth-and-short,” said Morris. “They didn’t let us run the trap very well in the first half.”
Five plays later, junior quarterback Carter Shifflett put the first points on the board with a 5-yard keeper.
“We knew it was going to be a grind-it-out night,” said Shifflett. “They have a great defense, respect to them, and with the conditions like that, we knew we needed to get some points up early and get momentum and confidence going.”
Fluvanna answered with an 80-yard drive, aided by a roughing the passer penalty. After the flag, five different runners got the call on the next five plays, advancing into the red zone. Senior Nate Smith then evened the game with a 12-yard touchdown.
The teams exchanged punts for the next four series before Western got it back with 1:07 before halftime. With three carries by sophomore running back Austin Shifflett that picked up 31 yards, a defensive pass interference penalty, and a 21-yard completion to Wyatt Hull, the Warriors had a scoring opportunity with 5 seconds on the clock. However, a 23-yard field goal attempt missed wide, keeping it 7-7 at the break.
“We drove the ball and had an opportunity, but it’s a tough night for anybody to kick the ball,” said Western coach Ed Redmond. “I thought we refocused at halftime and made some adjustments.”
After the offense picked up one first down on its possession to open the third quarter, a 50-yard punt flipped the field on Fluvanna once again. The Flucos had started moving the chains when Western’s defense came up with the game’s first official turnover as Nate Smith powered through the middle but lost the ball near the 40.
“It was the same type of game we’ve been playing all year,” said Morris. “We just didn’t create any turnovers, and they did. The turnovers after moving [the ball], it takes the steam out of you.”
Austin Shifflett picked up 24 yards on a couple of carries before Carter Shifflett went to the air for the dagger on third-and-6.
“Carter ran out of the pocket and bought some time for Lesemann to get open, and Jack just makes a great catch,” Redmond said, as Western’s receiver won the race to the right pylon for the go-ahead 17-yard score. “That conversion was a big play, and then our defense settled in.”
Lesemann is one of 19 seniors on the roster who are ensuring that the Warriors’ program returns to the playoffs, where Western appeared for eight straight seasons before missing out last year at 2-8.
“A lot of the kids who played tonight were sophomores two years ago, and we went through some growing pains,” said Redmond. “To see them get some reward for their hard work is certainly pleasing, and for them to be able endure the grind is really special to this program. Now I think we’ve got the program back where it needs to be.”
With the score 14-7 midway through the third, Fluvanna looked to respond as it did in the first half. Although the punt team took the field on fourth-and-4 at its own 35, a dropped snap turned into a first down as Leukas Koczan scooped the bouncing ball and made it to the left sideline with a gain of eight. However, four plays later with the Flucos in business inside Western’s 35, a mishandled snap became turnover number two. Following the quarter change, Austin Shifflett broke loose for 53 yards before being dragged down on the right sideline at the 5 yardline. With 9:36 remaining, he scored from a yard out on fourth-and-goal, giving Western a comfortable two-touchdown margin.
Fluvanna drove quickly into the red zone, but the Warriors’ defense locked down on third and fourth down. From there, Western was content to run Austin Shifflett and play field position, knowing Fluvanna’s offense is not designed for hurry-up passing. The Flucos’ subsequent two possessions also ended with turnovers on downs.
“Fluvanna’s got a really good football team, and we knew we had to focus on the run,” Redmond said. “I thought our kids, in the end, finished the game when they needed to.”
Austin Shifflett finished 190 yards on 28 carries, both game highs. Carter Shifflett completed 3-of-5 passes for 44 yards and rushed six times for only 5 yards. Thanks to turnovers and long kick returns, Western’s 246 yards of offense were plenty.
“I thought Austin ran hard and Carter managed the game really well,” said Redmond. “I was really pleased with our offensive line and they way they stuck with it in the second half.”
Fluvanna, meanwhile, tallied a greater-than-usual 318 yards. Smith led the ground game with 58 yards on 18 carries. Prophett Harris added 53 yards on nine rushes, and Christmas got it eight times for 30 yards. Kobe Edmonds completed 6-of-10 passes for 80 yards and ran eight times for 44 yards.
Fluvanna (6-3, 4-2) suddenly finds itself on a two-game skid as it heads to the Jungle to take on Louisa County (9-0, 6-0).
“It’s a border rivalry, and I used to teach and coach there a long time ago,” Morris said. “They’re the ones that everybody around here strives to emulate. Like that old saying, I hope we go in there and play like Tarzan.”
Western (7-2, 5-1) wraps up the regular season at home against Albemarle (4-5, 4-2).