Blue Ridge knew it was heading into its second meeting of the season with Christchurch shorthanded. With starting quarterback Kenyon Carter unavailable, the Barons leaned on sophomore Devin Walker to lead the passing attack.
There were some shaky moments on Saturday, particularly in the fourth quarter, but at the end of the day, the sophomore came through and his 51-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth to senior Iceysis Lewis wound up being the difference in a VISAA Division 2 semifinal victory, 43-40 propelling Blue Ridge into the championship game next week.
“We had an unfortunate situation,” said Barons coach Jimmy Willis. “Devin’s always had a lot of confidence. He obviously made a few mistakes today but when we needed him the most he came through. He played an excellent football game. You never know what you’re going to get (when your starting QB is out) but Devin came out today and really, really picked us up when we needed it. We’re super proud of the way Devin performed today.”
Saturday’s adversity nearly took centerstage for Blue Ridge and forced Walker and Lewis’ huge games to become more of a side note. Up comfortably at 35-19 going into the fourth quarter, the Barons’ went from confident and at ease to tense and anxious as the Seahorses scored 21 unanswered points in a short window take their only lead of the game.
“Our hat is off to Christchurch, that’s a great opponent,” Willis said. “I told our guys, adversity is going to be what defines you. We’ve faced adversity all year from the heat to the injuries to this. The guys learned some lessons. They faced adversity and then they didn’t back down.”
Christchurch picked up its first eight on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Jaylen Wood to Jackson Swanner on a fourth down play with 10:38 left in the game. Then after DJ Sims came up with an interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown, teammate Lawrence Porter finished a short drive with a rushing touchdown to make it a 2-point contest just over a minute later. With 5:03 to go, Christchurch connected on a 67-yard bomb from Wood to Sims on a critical fourth down play to go up 40-35.
With four passing touchdowns already on the day, Walker had a fifth one in him to avoid the collapse. On the play, much like he did all game, Walker was able to buy time with his feet before launching deep down field. The 51-yard touchdown gave the Barons back the lead at 43-40 after a successful 2-point convert with 2:40 on the clock.
“I’ve never been under pressure this bad, it was crazy,” Walker said. “I was going to run on that play but then I saw Iceysis open way back there and so I just decided I had to throw it.”
The Blue Ridge defense then forced a turnover on downs, but Christchurch’s defense was able to force fourth down with 30 seconds to play to give itself an opportunity to get the ball back. On the ensuing punt however, the Seahorses wound up roughing up the punter (Lewis) on the play, squandering the chance and allowing the Barons to take a knee and run out the clock.
“The coaches made us understand that this was going to probably be the last time we (seniors) would get to play here,” said Nwaoko, who’s play on the defensive line was instrumental in keeping Wood from having a huge game at quarterback. “Christchurch beat us two years ago in this same game and so we had this fire in us to try and stop them on every play. It was all about the fire.”
The first quarter was nothing but defense, but in just one minute in the second quarter, the two teams combined to score 27 points. The Barons drew first blood with Walker’s first TD pass of the day, a 25-yard strike to Lewis.
“We’ve got the backup quarterback but he made big plays,” Lewis said. “I depended on him the whole time and he went out and did his things.”
On the next play from scrimmage, the Seahorses got a 67-yard touchdown run from DJ Sims. Blue Ridge answered in kind with Lewis returning the ensuing kickoff 80 yards to the house. On the next play from scrimmage, Christchurch returned fire with an 80-yard touchdown run from Lawrence Porter, but a failed 2-point convert left the melee at 14-13 for the Barons.
Blue Ridge was able to get a 60-yard bomb from Walker to a wide open Jacob Rice on a go route to make it 21-13 five minutes later. With 1:18 until the break, Christchurch quarterback Jaylen Wood found DJ Sims in stride for a 71-yard touchdown to make it 21-19 going into the break.
That set the table for the Barons to take a strong lead in the third quarter. Walker found Lewis for a 30-yard touchdown midway through the frame. Then four minutes later Walker did the same with Andy Nwaoko to make it 35-19 with 1:41 left in the third.
That was the leadup to the comeback for Christchurch and ultimately, Walker and Lewis’ big time play and more late game heroics from the defense and special teams unit to wrap up the hard fought win.
Blue Ridge (8-3) now will travel to face rival North Cross (11-1) who dismantled Atlantic Shores 40-0 in the other semifinal. The Barons and Raiders met at the end of September with the latter rolling 70-28. However, the last VISAA championship for Blue Ridge came in 2016 when Blue Ridge made the road trip to play North Cross.
“This is a big win for us and we’re going to go down there and make it happen,” Lewis said.
Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday in Roanoke which buys the Barons one last week of practice.