This whole backs-against-the-wall deal is only two weeks old for Louisa County. But the Lions are getting better at it, they’re getting used to it.
That should sound alarms for opponents going forward. Louisa faced a rare deficit last week at home and responded with a huge second half to beat Courtland in the first round of the Region 2B playoffs. Friday night, Louisa faced a 14-point deficit early in the second quarter of the semifinals. Their response? A 28-0 unanswered run filled with defensive stops on fourth down, a truly clutch interception at the end of the first half and a gutsy offensive showing in the second that paved the way for a 35-28 win on the road against second-seeded Monacan, the team that bounced the Lions out of the playoffs last year.
“It wasn’t that they caught us off guard, that we were prepared for losing,” said Louisa coach Mark Fischer. “We knew there was a high probability that they would get on top of us early and we couldn’t panic. We prepared for being down and how we were going to respond? That was our whole thing this week — what are you going to do? Last week was a great help for us.”
In a game this wild, there wasn’t one moment for the Lions, but rather a string of them that got the job done. But two of them stood out more than any other, Raquan Jones’ interception to close the first half and Job Whalen’s fourth quarter touchdown run on fourth down to give the Lions their first lead.
Before Jones came up with his interception with 14 seconds on the clock, Monacan had taken two successful field goals off the board because of Louisa penalties. Twice the Chiefs took the penalty instead of walking into the break with a 24-14 lead. Facing down a potential 28-14 hole, the Lions’ defense came up with its first big answer against a passing attack that carved them up most of the night when Jones came up with a pick in the endzone and returned it to midfield. The play made it just 21-14 at the break, something that seemed a bit crazy after the beginning of the second quarter.
“It was a game changer, the pass came right to me,” Jones said. “It was surprising but I got it and just ran. It gave us a lot of confidence on defense, that we could start coming up with stops against them. I mean, they should have taken that field goal.”
Fischer agreed, and while hindsight is of course 20-20, there are some adages in football you don’t play with — taking points off the board chief among them as the Lions got the ball to start the second.
“I never take points off the board,” Fischer said. “They’re so rare, if you get them, you get them. But I can’t second guess them. I can just tell you if we’re fortunate enough to get 1-2-3 of them, they aren’t coming off.”
Louisa fell into a 21-7 hole quick, and at a rate that had a tremendous Louisa faithful showing in the stands fairly quiet as they and most anyone not in a Lions uniform wondered if things were headed down hill from there.
The Chiefs scored on their opening drive with a 65-yard touchdown pass from Syour Fludd to Izayah Reeves. Then the Lions answered with a lengthy drive featuring a lot of running from Malik Bell, including a 5-yard scoring rush from the senior quarterback. But Fludd countered with a screen pass to Arturo Mendoza for a 24-yard touchdown and the Chiefs then recovered an onside kick. Just over a minute later after Korey Bridy scored on a 1-yard TD run, it was 21-7 with 10:20 left in the second. It was the make or break point of the game.
Louisa’s defense was able to adjust and keep things from getting worse though and with a 79-yard run from Bell with 6:49, it was 21-14.
The second half was a firestorm of big plays, but not until late in the third. Again, with the Lions defense holding up, Louisa was able to piece together a game-tying drive capped by a 2-yard run from Whalen with 2:25 left in the third. Just a few minutes later, the senior running back would come up with the biggest run of his career.
Facing fourth and four in the middle of the fourth quarter, Fischer decided to gamble on fourth down for a third time. The previous two had worked in Louisa’s favor. The third put them ahead with Whalen turning a short gain and a first down into a 29-yard touchdown to give his team the lead for the first time all night, a lead the Lions would not relinquish. For Whalen, who’d lost his mother Joanne just last November, it was a cathartic moment.
“I was talking to my mom right before it, saying ‘Mom, if you can do anything, look down on us and help us make this play’ and I think she blessed us tonight,” Whalen said. “The seniors, we’ve been in some tough games going back (last year’s season opening win against) Sherando. We played Monacan last year so we knew it’d be a roller coaster all night.”
The Lions’ defense then forced a turnover on downs at midfield. Jones answered with a 59-yard run to set up first and goal. He scored on the next play to make it 35-21 with 3:24 to go.
“Malik let me have the touchdown saying that I had earned it,” Jones said. “He went to fullback there and blocked for me and it was great.”
Monacan responded quickly with Fludd hitting Reeves for a 51-yard TD with 2:25 left. But Louisa’s Caleb Tuner came up with the onside kick and after Malik Bell came up with a first down on a fourth and final fourth down conversion, the Lions were able to run out the clock.
On the night, Louisa finished with 431 yards of offense with 379 of those on the ground to Monacan’s 416 yards with 310 of those through the air.
Bell led the lions with 24 carries for 203 yards. Whalen had 16 touches for 77 yards. Jones finished with three attempts for 73 yards. Bell was 5-for-6 passing with 52 yards.
The Lions now head to Dinwiddie in the Region 2B finals. This was the first second round playoff win for Louisa since 2006 when it made the then Group 2A Division 4 championship game. It’s the first time a Jefferson District team has escaped the second round of the playoffs since 2014 when Western Albemarle made it’s Group 3A run.
And for Fischer, his seniors, it’s another week of practice in a season that has been nothing short of perfect.
“I don’t want it to end,” Fischer said. “I know I’m retiring but I’d like play as along as we can and these kids gave me another opportunity to keep playing. You can’t be luckier or more proud than me.”