Last week, a lower-seeded Cave Spring squad surged to a 17-0 halftime advantage before Potomac stole the second-half momentum, ignited the home crowd and rallied for a 28-24 victory.
Against top-seeded Culpeper, No. 2 Potomac led 14-0 following a first half full of opportunities to take a larger lead into the locker room.
“I wish we were down,” Panther running back Antwan Stewart said. “I wish it was a little closer. We play better under pressure.”
Instead, Culpeper erased the two-touchdown advantage in a two-minute third quarter span and went on to win 24-14, adding an interception return for a touchdown with 9.5 seconds left to make the Blue Devil win appear less close than it was.
“I told the kids that you can’t make mistakes,” said Potomac coach Ben Stutler, who concluded his first season at 9-3. “You can’t let opportunities pass you by. You can’t let them slip through your hands… Against a good team, it’s going to come back and bite you. We found that out first-hand today.”
“It was more about pride than strategy,” Culpeper quarterback/defensive back Stefan Orange said of his team’s rally. “They caught us off guard a little, but we put it together in the second half.”
“At halftime we were a little [down] on each other,” Blue Devils coach Lou Sorrentino said. “We talked about how win, lose or draw, we’ve got to keep our composure. It’s easy to keep your composure when you’re up 45-0. If we were going to go down, I wanted us to go down hard and playing as a team.”
After the teams traded punts to begin the third quarter, Culpeper faced a third-and-12 from its 46-yard line. Though he was just 1 of 11 passing to that point, Orange looked down the middle of the field and fired toward running back Freddie Strother. Potomac’s Kyle Kingsbury, defending on the play, stepped in front of the pass, but the ball skipped off his hands. Strother hauled it for a 19-yard gain and momentum-changing first down.
Stutler called it the turning point in the game.
Two plays later, Jermaine Cropp bounced an inside run around the left end and scooted 26 yards to the 4. Strother shot through the middle and made it 14-7 on the next play.
“We knew we needed to stop them when we came out and not let them have the momentum,” Stutler said. “That pass goes through our hands. If we catch it, [we keep control of the game].”
Potomac quarterback Gary Price, the hero of the win over Cave Spring, floated a pass over the middle on the first play after the ensuing kickoff. Culpeper’s Kent Hicks intercepted the pass, one of three Price threw during the on-again, off-again rainy afternoon.
Four plays later, Orange connected with Jeremy Bailey, who broke three tackles inside the 8-yard line to score from 18 yards away. Brendan Greenaway’s point-after tied the score less than eight minutes into the second half.
The Panthers piled up 195 of their 196 total yards and nine of their 10 first downs in the first half. But they still had a shot at winning after they were not fooled by a Culpeper fake field goal attempt from the 20 with 5:11 left. Kingsbury and Dominikke Clark tackled holder Ben Pearson for a 15-yard loss.
Potomac took over 72 yards away from scoring and lost two yards on three plays, one of which was a double-reverse, quarterback throwback that scored a touchdown for them against Osbourn Park.
The Panthers punted with 4:00 left, got the ball back with 1:11 and no timeouts, but managed just 11 yards. Their final attempt, a halfback pass from Antwan Stewart, was intercepted by B.J. Johnson and returned 60 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
Culpeper (10-1) will host Patrick Henry-Ashland in a state semifinal game next week. Mount Vernon and Phoebus play in the other semifinal.
In a first half that they controlled, Potomac missed several opportunities, yet left no reason to believe Culpeper would rally.
Despite five offensive penalties, a wide-open receiver overthrown and a 63-yard pass play nullified, Potomac still outgained the Blue Devils by 141 yards. While Culpeper could not score on drives that began on the Panthers’ 27 and 36, Potomac spread the field and passed the ball effectively despite the rain. On defense, Keenan Carter, playing with a patch over one eye poked early on by a Blue Devil running back, and Sean Halse (3 sacks) were disrupting the Culpeper offense.
Price converted a fourth-and-3 in the second quarter by finding Carlton Hughes behind the secondary on a play-action pass for a 23-yard score. Price also followed a 32-yard completion to Stewart with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Hughes three minutes later.
But Price also threw an interception in the end zone on a first-quarter pass intended for Wade Green. Potomac also missed big-play opportunities when a 63-yard strike from Price to Stewart up the right seam was nullified by an illegal motion penalty. Price overthrew a diving Green on the next possession, and Stewart mishandled a would-be interception near the 35-yard that was sure to go for six.
“[Our halftime lead] should have been at least 28,” said senior captain Tony Blackwell.
A group of Potomac seniors among the most successful in school history (two district titles, two region finals) said they gave it all they had and it wasn’t enough.
“We came out here and fought and I guess they were the better team,” said Carter, who like Orange and Stewart is bound for the University of Virginia. “We came out with the heart and desire to play harder. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
“At some point in [every] game, something always goes wrong and we get together and talk,” Blackwell said. “I guess this time we just couldn’t put it back together.”
Unlike during the Cave Spring game, when Potomac encountered trouble, it had no answer.
“If you give good football teams momentum,” said Stutler, “anything can happen. We saw that last week.”
Unfortunately, Potomac saw it again on Saturday.
Staff Writer Lacy Lusk contributed to this story.
NORTHWEST REGION, DIVISION 5 FINAL
CULPEPER 24, POTOMAC 14
Potomac 0 14 0 0 14
Culpeper 0 0 14 10 24
P — Hughes 23 pass from Price (Chudacek kick), 6:50.
P — Hughes 16 pass from Price (Chudacek kick), 3:58.
C — Strother 4 run (Greenaway kick), 6:11.
C — Bailey 18 pass from Orange (Greenaway kick), 4:06.
C — FG Greenaway 35, 9:57.
C — Johnson 60 interception return (Greenaway kick), 0:09.
RUSHING — Potomac, Price 13-36, Stewart 7-35, Koger 7-8, Kingsbury 1-4. Culpeper, Cropp 15-60, Strother 10-53, Orange 16-17, Bailey 1-3, Pearson 2-(-25).
PASSING — Potomac, Price 9-19-3 113, Blackwell 0-0-0 0, Stewart 0-0-1 0. Culpeper, Orange 3-13-0 51, Pearson 1-2-1 2.
RECEIVING — Potomac, Stewart 3-55, Hughes 2-39, Green 2-13, Koger 1-8. Culpeper, Strother 1-19, Bailey 1-18, Lambert 1-14, Hicks 1-2.