Title shot: Lions hold on late to beat Rams in final four

Photo: Bart Isley

With each win from August through November, all the Louisa County seniors heard about, largely from its own coaching staff, was that they weren’t at the level of the 2006 Lions. Not yet.


“Ever since we started, this whole year it’s always been about the ‘06 team going to the state championship game,” said Lions senior Tony Thurston. “Every win we kept telling them we’re going to beat ‘06. We’ve been rubbing it in. We’re going to beat ’06.”


The 2017 edition is going to get its shot. After Saturday afternoon’s meeting with Lafayette in the Jungle, the worst that the Lions can say is that they matched ‘06. Behind a big first half offensively, some key special teams action in the second and of course, a few signature plays defensively to end the fourth, Louisa County is headed to its first Group 4A championship game in 11 years after a 20-13 win.


They’ll face Salem at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at William and Mary in Williamsburg.


“It’s all about the way they responded, it was just like at Monacan,” said Louisa coach Mark Fischer, referencing the Lions comeback 35-28 come-from-behind win two weeks up. “All of the sudden it was boom, (Lafayette) had all the momentum and it was gut check time. It was ‘Ok, how are we going to be?’ I didn’t see our kids flinch. I don’t think we blinked.”


The Lafayette defense had not given up more than 17 points all season en route to its 12-1 record and showing in the Group 4A final four. Louisa County threw up 17 points on the board in the first half. The Lions got the ball to start and marched down field methodically before Malik Bell hit Caleb Turner for a 26-yard touchdown pass to cap an 11-play drive that lasted 4:31.


With the Lions defense dialed in and forcing punts, Louisa was able to get the first of what would be two huge field goals from Thomas Henley. The senior connected on a 27-yard kick to make it 10-0 with 7:36 left in the second. Nearly five minutes later, Raquan Jones was able to cap a 43-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run and Louisa went into the break up a clean 17-0.


“It was really physical out there and really came down to who wanted it more,” Jones said. “You know how we do, just pound it, pound it, pound it until the clock until the clock goes out.”


But the momentum of the game shifted quickly from there. The Rams put together their first scoring drive with a 3-yard run from DaeMario Tyler that was preceded by a 24-yard pass on fourth and long from Cesar Ward to Mike Rodgers. Lafayette answered again exactly five minutes later with a 12-yard run from Tyler to make it 17-13 with 2:56 left in the third.


And with the Rams defense adjusting at the break and forcing three turnovers on downs and a pair of punts from there, those final three points were hard to come by for the Lions.


“The adjustments (Lafayette) made in the second half showed what a good coaching staff they have,” Fischer said. “They really started to use their linebackers to hurt us. We really couldn’t get a lot going.”


Facing fourth and eight at midfield, the Lions got their biggest play of the half when Bell found Whalen on a short pass that wound up being a 25-yard gain. With the Rams defense forcing fourth and goal from the six yard line, the Lions went back to Henley. His 23-yard kick made it 20-13 with 2:39 remaining on the clock.


“There was a big sense of relief there,” Henley said. “I was told one day I would get called up and my teammates would need me. I got called up and did what I needed to do.”


Bell would find himself in a similar position just a few plays later when Ward put a little too much air on a pass during the Rams ensuing drive. The Lions safety hauled in an interception and allowed the offense to go to work on the clock.


“I knew I had to come up with that play for my team,” Bell said. “I knew that was going to be a big one.”


The Rams got one last chance with just 14.2 seconds. However Devin Jackson-McGhee came up with a game ending sack to put a bow on the victory.


“I saw the tackle was really outside of me so I just shot the gap and got through,” Jackson-McGhee. “We knew what was at stake. We didn’t want to go home tonight (with a loss) so we had to come out and get it done.”


The Lions defense held the Rams to just 109 total yards on offense. Conversely, the Lions had 302 yards with 215 of them coming on the ground. Bell finished with 28 carries for 95 yards and was 5-for-11 passing with 87 yards. Whalen had 15 touches for 59 yards and two catches for 40 yards. Jones has seven rushing attempts for 43 yards.


Louisa improved to 14-0 for the first time in program history and will look to make it a clean 15-0 when it faces Salem — who sprinted past Sherando 49-7 in the other semifinal — at William and Mary on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Saturday’s game was the last ever for Fischer and his seniors at home, but one with the best possible outcome.


“I love playing here,” Bell said. “I wish I could play another year, but I’m a senior. Our time has come and we’re ready to go to the state championship game and do what we know how to do.”