HOPEWELL — It’s hard to imagine that a thing of beauty was played out in a backdrop of heavy mud.
But in a sea of slop, a true classic was constructed by the football teams from Hopewell and Stafford high schools on Sunday.
In a Group AAA, Division 5 game pitting two teams that are polar opposites at Mernfield Park in Hopewell, both teams did what they do best.
Stafford spent the first half controlling the line of scrimmage and Hopewell took to the air in the second. However, the Indians had built up a big enough margin to hold off the stubborn Blue Devils 32-29 in the state semifinals.
“We beat a very well-coached team,” Stafford coach Roger Pierce said. “With us going in with a big halftime lead, they could have hung their heads but they didn’t. They came back and had us on our heels for most of the second half.
“But we felt we could control the line of scrimmage because that is what got us here. In the first half we were able to do that. In the second half they played tremendous but we got two big breaks in the end with the interceptions by [Matt] Brady and [Chris] Collins.”
Both teams played evenly through the first period. Hopewell marched down field on the first possession on the arm of quarterback Lee Bujakowski. Bujakowski, a 6-3 225-pound junior, was 3 for 3 for 63 yards on the drive that ended with a 21 yard hookup with David Hearington for the game’s first touchdown. Jarrett Brown’s point-after just squeezed inside the left upright for a 7-0 lead.
Just as easy, Stafford marched 65-yards on eight plays in just two minutes and 34 seconds for the answer. Thomas McClelland capped the drive with a 1 yard run and Ray Damm added the PAT to tie the score. The big play on the drive was a 32-yard pass from quarterback Mike Allshouse to Robert Thompson that put the Indians into the red zone.
The second quarter belonged to Stafford. The Northwest Region champions took control of the line of scrimmage and racked up 22 points. The first score came on Thomas McClelland’s longest run of the day, a 45-yarder, for the score. Damm missed the PAT but the Blue Devils were flagged for roughing the kicker so Stafford coach Roger Pierce opted for the two-point conversion which McClelland also carried in for a 15-7 lead.
The Stafford defense applied pressure and Bujakowski started to rush a few passes and, on the following series, went three-and-out. Then, the Indians went 70 yards on 10 plays, capped off by a 1-yard pass from McClelland to Tim Sullivan in the end zone.
Damm added the PAT for the 22-7 lead with 1:09 left before intermission. Hopewell was forced to punt and Stafford took over at its own 47 with 18 seconds left to the half. The Indians called play action in what looked like a play to run out the clock and Allshouse found Robert Thompson uncovered down the left sideline. The 6-2 senior rambled in for the third TD of the quarter. Damm connected on his third PAT of the game and Stafford took a sizable 29-7 lead into the locker room.
The third quarter was a completely different story. The Blue Devils, using multiple receiver sets like they had done in the Central Region final, caught fire.
In the third quarter, Bujakowski, who was 8 of 19 for 131 yards at the half, hit 8 of 13 passes for 103 yards that resulted in two TDs. One to David Hearington from 15-yards out and the other to Carl Taylor from 38 yards away. Sandwiched in between was a 30-yard run by Brown that took the ball down to the 1. But he fumbled into the end zone and Hearington was there to pounce on it for his second TD of the game.
At the end of the third quarter, the Blue Devils had closed the gap to 32-26 and clearly had gained momentum before the home crowd.
Stafford went to its workhorse McClelland on five carries in six plays to take the game into the fourth quarter. But with 10:55 left, McClelland, who broke the Group AAA playoff record for most carries last week against Culpeper, went down with an ankle injury. He was carried off the field and forced to watch the game with the ankle iced from the team bench.
Twice Bujakowski moved his team downfield, continuously hitting receivers over the middle. On the first threat, Hopewell faced third and 10 from the 16 when Bujakowski was picked off by Matt Brady, who had subbed on both sides of the football for McClelland, at the 1-yard line. Aided by an offside penalty, the Indians moved the ball out to the 38 before it was forced to punt. Bujakowski found Taylor twice and Hearington once and moved to the Stafford 11. On the next play, Brown carried the ball once again to the end zone and fumbled. This time Stafford pounced on the fumble for the touchback.
With two minutes left, Stafford got the ball back at the 20 and after two meaningless plays was faced with third and 10. Then, Tim Sullivan, on the halfback option, hit Robert Thompson with an 80-yard TD. But amidst the celebration, Stafford learned it had been flagged for an illegal shift penalty. Sullivan picked up 10 yards on the next play but it wasn’t enough for the first down.
Pierce faced with fourth and five at their own 25. With the long snapper out [McClelland] and punter Damm facing heavy pressure all day, Pierce had Sullivan run backwards into his own end zone for the safety.
Damm booted the ensuing free kick to the 47 yard line. Bujakowski hit Wayne Hedgepeth for a 12-yard gain over the middle with 1:13 left and spiked the ball on the following play to stop the clock at 1:03.
Then on second down, Bujakowski looked over the middle again and Stafford linebacker Chris Collins got his right hand on it and tipped in back to his body for the interception.
“They had been throwing in the middle of the field all day and it was mine and Tim Sullivan’s job to drop back and cover. On that play he [Bujakowski] was looking in my direction and I was able to tip the pass. Once I got a hand on it I knew I could get the interception.”
Collins hauled it in and went 15 yards past midfield.
Allshouse took a knee twice and the Indians swarmed the wet grounds.
According to the linebacker Tim Sullivan, after Chris Collins intercepted the pass to seal game, it was a sweet moment for Stafford historians.
“I was so excited I just ran up to him and told him we desperately needed a big play and he came up with the interception that is taking us to the state finals. This team has now become the best team in Stafford High School history and that means a lot to us because many of our parents went to Stafford. In fact, my father played football at Stafford.”
McClelland, in just under three quarters of play, picked up 202 yards on 27 carries and two TDs. It was his third straight game of 200 or more yards in the post season and takes his season total to 2,381. Tim Sullivan added 101 yards on 14 carries while Brady filled in for McClelland and picked up 46 yards on eight carries.
“I knew when Thomas went out, I had to not only step up on offense but on defense also because he is one of our best defensive players,” Brady said. “On the interception I just saw the ball popped off the receiver and I dove for it.”
On the other side, Bujakowski finished 23 of 40 for 341 yards with two TDs, but was picked off twice in the fourth quarter. Hearington and Taylor had eight catches apiece to pace the Blue Devils receiving corps.
With the win, Stafford improved to 11-2 on the season and moves onto the Group AAA, Division 5 championship game at University of Richmond Stadium on Saturday at 4 p.m. The Indians’ foe will be Phoebus, from the East Region, a 55-0 winner over South Lakes on Saturday.
Hopewell, with the majority of its key personnel coming back next season, finished the year at 9-3.