CHESTER — Late Saturday afternoon, things got so bad for Hylton’s football team that coach Bill Brown was spending more time on the field than his team’s offense.
Brown, who has guided five Prince William County teams to state championship games, just missed out on a sixth. The previously unbeaten Bulldogs mysteriously wilted in the December heat in a game played at the southern end of Chesterfield County.
“I think that we win so much, we forgot how it feels to lose,” said Brown, whose teams have gone 51-3 in the last four years. “They’re devastated, heartbroken. Most winners are when they lose.”
The only football coach Hylton has ever had, Brown has special memories of visits to this part of the state. His wife, Gail, has family here. Earlier this year, story has it, the coach was late for a family function because he was checking out the field at Thomas Dale — just in case the Bulldogs would have to play here in the state semifinals, as they did in Saturday’s 27-22 season-ender.
Now that’s preparation, something Brown usually has. His Potomac teams reached two state finals and his Hylton teams have been to three, winning in 1998 and 1999.
But Brown clearly wasn’t prepared for what happened in the second half on Saturday. No doubt he’ll be spending much of this offseason thinking of one fumble that wasn’t and one that was.
On the play after Hylton fell behind for the first time since the first quarter, quarterback Jeff Overton lost the ball on a 4-yard gain. Thomas Dale recovered and effectively wrapped up the game by running the clock down to 33 seconds.
“The referee on our side came in and marked it down, but the head referee said he wasn’t down,” Brown said minutes after the game.
Trying to get the officials to reverse their call, Brown claims he requested a timeout. When he was out on the field, though, he was called for a 15-yard penalty. Then, Hylton was granted a timeout and he continued (legally) to coach and chide from the field.
“Coach Brown, if he feels we’re being treated unfairly, of course he’ll make a stand for us,” Overton said. “You have to do what you have to do.”
Moments later, Thomas Dale quarterback Micah Womack took a knee for a 1-yard loss. Brown took his team’s final timeout, and gave the officials a demonstration of where he thought Womack’s knee hit the ground — a full yard farther back than the spot. When the next snap was made, he was still about 20 yards from the Hylton sideline.
Brown attributed the second-half turnaround to two factors: His team’s inability to hold onto the football and Thomas Dale’s intensity and effort in the second half. “The rest of it you saw,” he said. “I’m not allowed to comment on some of those things.”
The plays that stood out were Overton’s fumble and a Thomas Dale non-fumble earlier in the fourth quarter. On a first-and-10 play from the Hylton 23-yard line with his team down 22-15, Knights fullback Darious Nelson lost a yard and lost the ball. Linebacker B.J. Hall scooped up the ball, but the play was ruled dead because of a stop in forward progress.
Hall “was trying to run with the ball; we had our offense on the field, and suddenly it went the other way,” Brown said.
Brown summed up the turnovers — and even his own penalty — by saying, “That wasn’t a good sequence for us.”
And that sequence stunned a team that had been 12-0, and was coming off three straight shutouts and a pair of easy postseason wins (49-0 and 35-0). Hylton managed to run just 17 plays from scrimmage in the second half.
“They’re as hurt as you can imagine,” Brown said. “I can’t even explain how hurt they are. I guess that’s why winning feels so good, because losing feels so bad. We don’t have a whole lot of that at our place.”
All Brown could do was look back at that same field he studied during a family visit. His team lingered in the locker room, while he paced near the entrance to the stadium. This season, with a senior class that showed heart and talent, wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Hylton has won four straight Northwest Region championships. The Bulldogs seized state crowns in 1998 and 1999, but lost 42-0 to Deep Creek in the state semifinals last year. Overton, then a sophomore, and his teammates were overwhelmed in this round last season. This time, they were overwhelmed with emotion.
No matter how hard they fought, or how long they stayed on the field, the Bulldogs couldn’t change the result.
“This one hurts a lot more than last year because this one was right in our grasp,” Overton said. “We let it slip away.”