Jeff Overton’s first two trips to the Group AAA, Division 6 state semifinals ended badly.
Two seasons ago he was a backup quarterback, a sophomore who ended up making a rare start at Deep Creek, when Hylton was bounced from the playoffs, 42-0. Last year, the Bulldogs led at Thomas Dale, 22-8, before fumbling on four straight second-half possessions and falling, 27-22.
Overton stood triumphantly in the middle of Hylton’s muddy field Saturday as a television crew interviewed him and one of his younger sisters after the Bulldogs’ 22-8 victory over Thomas Dale. His sister told him he deserved a ring, just like his older brother Darryl had won with one of the Bulldogs’ previous state championship teams.
Overton admits he is a far better player than he was in his baptism by fire of sorts down in Chesapeake. But he’s also far wiser, something that may help him get that ring he promised his sister.
“We made [fewer] mistakes than they did,” Overton said, assessing the difference in Saturday’s game. “One thing I’m learning is that the further you go, the better the teams you play are, and the one thing you can’t do is make mistakes.”
Hylton got burned for a 61-yard touchdown pass on the game’s third play, snapped a ball over punter John Coletta’s head for a first-quarter safety and had four first-half penalties. But none of the mistakes were game-breakers, and they played flawlessly in the second half. The Bulldogs’ biggest lapse of judgment after halftime may have come when someone tossed a helmet skyward from a crowd of celebrating Hylton players post-game.
The Knights’ miscues were far more costly.
“We made mistakes; we fumbled, we threw interceptions and we had penalties at inopportune times,” said Thomas Dale coach Vic Williams, whose team ended its season 12-1. “You can’t do that against a good team. They’re a very good team, but they’re not that much better than us. We just made mistakes.”
Among the oopsies: three interceptions thrown by senior quarterback Derius Swinton, who’d thrown only four picks in 131 attempts all season; a personal foul on a second-and-18 no gain that gave Hylton a key third-and-3 to start the fourth period; and a running-into-the-kicker penalty on the same drive, on a fourth-and-1 punt.
The latter two penalties left the Knights with little comeback time in the fourth period. Hylton held the ball for more than 21 of 24 minutes in the second half. Thomas Dale ran just 12 second-half plays for 18 yards. In all, the Knights ran 35 plays for 146 yards, and 61 of them came on that early touchdown pass.
By contrast, Hylton ran 61 plays, 57 of them rushes, for 283 yards.
Head coach Lou Sorrentino won a Division 5 state title with Culpeper in 1999 and still wears a whistle at the end of a Blue Devils’ lanyard. Though he says he’s not superstitious, he did wear the same pair of shoes on Saturday that he wore in Culpeper’s state playoff victories over Hampton and Henrico that year.
Hylton’s three previous trips to the state championship game came under longtime head coach Bill Brown, who started the Bulldogs’ program when the school opened in 1991. Hylton lost to Indian River in 1995, then beat Varina in back-to-back title games in 1998 and 1999.
Sorrentino arrived at the Spriggs Road school before this season. He’s characterized this season as a weird one for many reasons, and admitted that it has taken time for him to get to know the players, and vice versa.
That’s why he had to make clear to the team his theme coming into Saturday’s game: No regrets.
“We’re going to play wide-open, go after somebody and not act like we’re afraid to make a mistake,” the admittedly conservative Sorrentino says he told his players. “You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror when you wake up in the morning and I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror in the morning.”
No regrets. No motivational tool left unused either.
Sorrentino and the two assistants (Todd Campbell and Dave Boley) who accompanied him to Hylton from Culpeper brought their state championship rings in during practices this week. Sorrentino said the last time he wore his ring may have been when he was introduced to the team.
That day in June, Sorrentino said, Jeff Overton was one of the players most interested in seeing the ring.
Now, with just Oakton in the way, Overton’s out to get his own ring. His past experiences in the postseason are only more ammunition in his already loaded arsenal.
Though Hylton is far from a one-man team — eight players carried the ball on Saturday and more than a dozen had tackles on defense — Overton’s contribution is priceless.
“Jeff’s a real competitor,” Sorrentino said. “He’s a gamer. He plays hard and I never doubt his desire to play.”
Overton’s worth shows in more than just his 119 yards and two touchdowns and in more than just the sweet juke moves like the one he put on Thomas Dale’s Steve Spann on a first-half play that was called back.
“This being my third year in the playoffs, I felt real comfortable,” Overton said. “I felt confident.”
Down 8-0 early, that confidence in both himself and his teammates never wavered.
“It didn’t worry me at all,” he said. “I thought ‘Don’t panic. We’re coming back.’ I remained calm. As long as my team sees that, I know they’re going to go out and give their all.”
Nothing can make up for losing in the state semifinals in each of the past two seasons, a hurt that Overton was reminded of this week by a newspaper’s sports section hanging in the Hylton locker room that showed him crying after last year’s Thomas Dale loss. But nothing would make it all the more worthwhile than winning this year.
“It’ll definitely soothe the pain,” Overton said with a knowing smile. “It’ll definitely feel a lot better.”
And it would make his little sister proud too.
Keith McMillan is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or by e-mail at [email protected]