Finally, at a podium inside the bowels of Scott Stadium on Saturday, Chris Haddock could sit back and reflect. All year long the Centreville head coach had refused to compare his team to past greats who had graced the Clifton school, or to speculate on what might be in store for his team down the line. Players and coaches, he always insisted, were only focused on this week, this opponent, this practice.
But now, with the season’s final trophy in hand and nothing more left to achieve, Haddock revealed that his undefeated squad was driven by history all along. They wanted to set a higher standard. They wanted to go down as the best football team ever to come through Centreville High, as the best ever to represent Northern Virginia. All year long the Wildcats had eyes fixed on Charlottesville, where they wanted to redeem the 47-21 state championship defeat they suffered two years ago.
“We started a long time ago over the summer talking about today’s game,” Haddock said. “We really felt like we had a special group of kids, and we felt like we had a special opportunity this year. I’m just proud of how hard these kids worked.”
Many expected his kids to get out-worked against an Oscar Smith team ranked No. 1 in the state by MaxPreps and No. 8 in the country by USA Today. Instead, the Wildcats unleashed the same brand of smash-mouth football that got them to this point, making Oscar Smith look like just another hapless district opponent with no shot at victory.
Oscar Smith (14-1) entered Saturday’s 6A state final averaging 45 points per game; it ended the day with 88 yards of offense in a 35-6 defeat. The Tigers had a formidable defense that gave up fewer than five points per contest, led by hulking 6-foot-4, 280-pound lineman Andrew Brown, the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Centreville gashed them for 327 rushing yards.
“They flat-out out-played us, out-hit us,” Oscar Smith coach Rich Morgan said. “They honestly just did things to us today that we usually do to everyone else.”
Attacking the strength of Oscar Smith’s defense might seem counterintuitive, but that was Centreville’s plan heading into Saturday’s game. Whereas the Wildcats (15-0) had thrived all season on stretching defenses by getting to the outside and working back in, they decided to beat Oscar Smith by pounding up the middle and then working outside.
“We really felt like going through all the film on Oscar Smith that nobody really went at them. We felt like that was the right plan,” Haddock said. “We certainly knew that they had some great football players, but we felt like we could run straight ahead against them.”
As he has done so often these past two seasons, junior running back AJ Turner set the tone early with a long burst upfield to put Centreville ahead 7-0 on the game’s opening drive. The 52-yard dash up the middle marked the first points Oscar Smith’s first-team defense had given up since Oct. 14, leaving them trailing for just the third time this season.
“I think that built my confidence a lot,” Turner said. “At first I was kind of nervous. Their d-line is really good, and their linebackers are really solid. But after I scored the first time I realized they’re not unstoppable and that I’m definitely capable of doing what I do.”
Turner continued to torment the Tigers all evening en route to a season-high 182 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. His frequent explosions around the outside were complemented by the steady presence of senior quarterback Scott Walter, who ended the day with a season-high 105 yards on 22 carries. Playing under a steady downpour of freezing rain, Walter attempted only five passes, instead doing his damage with punishing keepers up the middle that wore down Oscar Smith’s beleaguered defense in the second half. Brown frequently threw up his hands in frustration and barked at his teammates amid the confusion created by Centreville’s misdirection wing-T ground attack.
“Their cut blocks were more efficient, I’ll give them that,” Brown said. “They weren’t physically better than us. They just schemed well. Penetration-wise, we were there, but it just didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. They got the best of us.”
Yet the real impetus behind Centreville’s momentum came on a defensive play that occurred with 7:07 to go in the first quarter. That’s when freshman quarterback Shon Mitchell tossed an errant screen pass right into the hands of junior defensive back Xavier Nickens-Yzer, who raced 65 yards to put the Wildcats up 14-0. Nickens-Yzer snagged another interception in the second half to go along with three pass breakups on the day.
Centreville rattled the Tigers’ 14-year-old quarterback with constant pressure that forced him to just seven completions on 21 pass attempts, along with three sacks and a lost fumble. Oscar Smith surrendered four turnovers, the result of facing nasty weather and a nastier defense.
“It was preparation,” Centreville senior linebacker Chad Wiggins said. “Every day in practice we go through it. We know each play before it’s going to be snapped, and that was the key this week. We needed to study hard and come out ready to play, and that’s what I think we did. It’s all about preparation.”
Born and raised in Centreville, Haddock emitted a grin at the thought of his team’s legacy: the best he’s ever been around in 21 years of coaching at the high school level, the best ever to come through Centreville, among the best ever to come out of Virginia. With five first-team all-region juniors coming back next year, he knows his team could be poised for more glory next year. But he’s not counting on it, not with the impending departure of his senior leaders, the same kids who arrived to Centreville at the same time he did four years ago.
“It’s not about talent. It’s just not,” Haddock said. “That team in the other locker room has a heck of a lot of talent, too. So for us it’s not about the talent returning. It’s about the chemistry and the team concept and the intangible qualities that we work really hard on perfecting. Having responsibility and integrity and character.”