Going back a decade, Westfield’s football team has undeniably been the most consistent in Northern Virginia. There’s a pair of state titles (2003 and 2007), a handful of players who have attained success in college and the NFL (most recently, Tampa Bay starting quarterback Mike Glennon), and the astounding overall record of 133-32 since 2000. Ahead of most games, Westfield is decidedly not an underdog.
Except for Saturday at Centreville, when the teams will meet for the sixth time in four years and the second time this season in the VHSL 6A North championship game. A berth in the state title game next weekend in Charlottesville is on the line as the Bulldogs look to avenge a 28-0 regular-season loss to their undefeated (13-0) rivals from nearby Clifton who have arguably been the best high school team in Virginia all year.
The seniors from Westfield (11-2) who have either played in or witnessed the five prior games have a record of 3-2 against the Wildcats. Most of the games have been decided by just a few points, with the only blowouts coming earlier this year and in Westfield’s 35-14 victory in 2010.
Tim Curry, a senior defensive end who says the Bulldogs’ 27-24 loss to the Wildcats in the 2011 regional title game still stings, can’t imagine his team getting blown out like it did back in October.
“I don’t think anybody’s really 28 points better than us,” said Curry on Monday before practice. “As long as we come out and play our game … we can play no matter the circumstances.”
While some teams need a signature victory early in the season to rally around later in the year, the Bulldogs made it to last weekend’s 6A North semifinal game at then 12-0 Lake Braddock without having a game from which they could draw inspiration. But their come-from-behind 19-16 win against the Bruins, which featured an early blocked extra point and a fourth-quarter blocked field goal returned for a momentum-swinging touchdown, now serves that purpose.
“At halftime against Lake Braddock, down 13-0, a couple people were starting to freak out a little, but we got them up, and we all got back together and came out strong. We only let up three points in the second half,” said Curry of his defense’s ability to lock up the Bruins, whose season-low point total had been 31.
Kyle Simmons, Westfield’s third-year coach, was in his office Monday afternoon rehearsing what he would say to his players later that day in order to get them to close the door on last weekend’s dramatic win and focus their energy on preparing for Centreville. He took a notecard off his desk and began to run through his speech:
“We’ve got to get past all the backslapping that’s going on right now. It’s awesome to come in and all the teachers are excited and congratulating us, but having upset [Lake Braddock] and having come from so far behind, we can’t let that be our championship,” Simmons said. “We need to say ‘OK, it’s a fresh week.’ That’s going to be our war cry this week. And then we’re going to talk about how the pressure’s on [Centreville], it’s really not on us. Nobody expected us to beat Lake Braddock. And then we’re going to talk about making amends for getting embarrassed the first time.”
Perhaps the most important message Simmons had for his players when they gathered around him before Monday’s workout centered on the idea of not letting up on any one play, because it might turn out to be the game’s most important. While the Bulldogs will always remember James Gibson scooping up the blocked field goal and going 89 yards early in the fourth quarter to make it 16-10, the pivotal play might have been the early blocked extra point. Following Evan Gray’s late touchdown run, “we’re kicking to win instead of kicking to tie,” Simmons said. “It’s a pretty big play.”
And the fact that Gray, a junior who finished with over 150 yards on 25 carries, was even in position to score the go-ahead touchdown speaks to another aspect of Westfield’s Cinderella status: they had to finish the game without senior tailback Tyler Thrasher-Walker, who left in the second quarter with a left knee injury.
“That was a big loss. At first we were all like ‘what are we going to do now?,’” said junior defensive back Donteiro Moore. “But Evan stepped up big time and we worked our way through it.”
Simmons said he is preparing to play without Thrasher-Walker, who amassed over 1800 yards and scored 21 touchdowns this year. Gray, who had 500 yards coming into the game, stepped into the primary role when it was clear Thrasher-Walker wouldn’t return.
“He showed he can be a tailback, despite the fact he’s a big guy,” Simmons said of the 220-pounder. “He’s a powerful runner.” Sophomore defensive back Dominique Pearson might also get some carries this week as a secondary option in the backfield.
While Centreville is clearly a juggernaut, having outscored opponents by almost 500 points and recorded four shutouts, there is a comfort in Westfield’s familiarity with the Wildcats. To players like Curry and linebacker Connor Rogers, these are guys who live down the street, not some nameless collection of stud football players seen only on tape.
“We know what they look like, we know some of their weaknesses. It’s an advantage to go over to our neighbors’ and play,” Rogers said. “We know what we’re getting into, and they’re just regular people like us.”
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, Simmons and his team can take some satisfaction from the fact that they won the 13th game of the season, something that didn’t happen the last two years when the Bulldogs came into the Northern Region title game as the favorites at 12-0 only to see their season end against Centreville and Oakton. While that game is no longer the region title game due to the VHSL’s reorganized playoff system, Simmons, 45, will be able to hold this season in high esteem as his career continues.
“There were some frustrating moments with this group of kids earlier where we really had to put aside some selfishness and some behaviors that were not team-oriented,” Simmons said. “And at one point I was wondering if we were ever going to make that transformation.”
Instead of lecturing his players, Simmons said he had to let the season play out with the hope that the collection of teenagers would become less worried about college recruiting, uniform accessories and Twitter traffic and more focused on winning football games.
That proved to be the case, and now the Bulldogs are one win away from their best season since 2007.