It was an afternoon of both joy and heartbreak.
At Appomattox, where the stands at Bragg Stadium couldn’t hold the capacity crowd that spilled over onto the track, smiles were all around.
That’s because the Raiders (12-2) powered past Graham 28-13 to advance to their fourth Class 2 state championship in five years.
In Daleville, the scene was much different for Heritage. While Lord Botetourt students and fans rushed onto the field following the Cavaliers’ 25-14 win, the Pioneers embraced.
They listened to coach Brad Bradley talk about how much he loved them. They cried. They spoke in low voices as they came to grips with the end of another fabulous season that produced 12 wins and just two losses.
“Football isn’t everything. Life doesn’t stop. Life moves on,” Pioneers senior outside linebacker Spencer Goolsby said. “It’s hurting right now. But we’re gonna move on from this, because every player on this team is gonna go on to do bigger and better things.”
In a way, that’s what high school football is all about. There are the old adages, about how football builds character and helps young people learn the value of teamwork. It’s more than that, though. Sometimes football teaches young people they’re capable of greatness if they keep striving for it.
Still, no one wants it to end so quickly.
That’s why Heritage seniors embraced Saturday. That’s why they held on for dear life and then finally walked off the field together, their heads hung low.
The class has helped bring 47 wins to Pioneer Country the last four years.
“I think our kids gave everything they had,” Bradley said. “They set the standard here at Heritage High School.”
The remaining players now turn their focus to other sports or to football work that begins next month.
“Our standards don’t change,” Bradley added.
So the remaining players will go through the same ritual as the ones who preceded them: weight room sessions in January, 7-on-7 games in the spring and sweat-stained workouts in the summer in anticipation of another season.
One area school isn’t thinking about offseason workouts yet. For Appomattox, there’s still work to be done.
The Raiders put up 380 yards of total offense against the G-Men on Saturday.
As the sun set behind the rolling hills beyond Bragg, players stood around talking and snapping pictures in the north end zone.
There was plenty to talk about in August, back when the young squad was undisciplined and lacked unity, back when this season looked like a bust.
“Everybody was doubting us,” senior Jaheim Scruggs said, “and we did not like that at all. We just had to get right.”
Now they can do no wrong. The Raiders have reeled off 11 straight victories and, after a one-year absence, return to Salem Stadium next week, where they celebrated state championships in 2015, ’16 and ’17.
Appomattox is the only team from the Lynchburg area still playing football. At least one area team has now appeared in a state championship game for the last 18 years.
That’s an astounding stat, one that is a tribute both to area coaching and playing abilities.
It’s also a testament to how teams can grow throughout the course of a four-month season.
Heritage began in August by playing North Carolina-based Vance, which on Friday advanced to the state’s 4AA state championship. Vance plays in North Carolina’s highest classification, and Heritage struggled against them.
But the payoff was worth it. The Pioneers peeled away for 12 straight victories.
Appomattox benefited from its Week 3 loss to Heritage. That was on Sept. 13.
The Raiders haven’t lost since.
“These guys have grown every week since the first week,” said Appomattox coach Doug Smith, who earned his 80th victory at the school Saturday. “All you can ask is kids to come together a little better each week, love on each other more. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. You hope and pray that they’re listening to you. And this group listens.”
Staff writer Emily Brown contributed to this Analysis.