In 2002, football teams from Heritage, Liberty and William Campbell all went to state championship games in different divisions, and all won that day.
Lynchburg-area squads have been on a tear ever since.
On Saturday, when Appomattox takes on Stuarts Draft in Salem at 4:30 p.m., at least one Lynchburg-area team will have played for a Virginia High School League state title for 18 straight years.
The Raiders (12-2) are the only team still playing from the area this year. This isn’t the first year they’ve kept the area’s streak alive all by themselves; they were also the only team still playing on the season’s final day in 2015, when they won their first football state title in school history and jumpstarted what became a three-peat.
After a one-year layoff, during which Appomattox lost in its regional title game, the Raiders are back.
“This year we came back strong,” senior offensive and defensive lineman Jamal Wheeler said Tuesday. “We didn’t cry about [last season’s ending] long. We just got back working.”
Salem, the site of all three of Appomattox’s championships, has become like a second home.
“It was meant to be,” Wheeler said of his team’s return.
The area’s streak is an impressive one. The last year a Lynchburg-area team was not in a state title game was 2001.
But teams from Lynchburg and surrounding counties were successful prior to that year, too. At least one appeared in state title games every year from 1988 — the year E.C. Glass won its most recent football state title — through 2000, when Rustburg carried the area torch by itself and won its second state championship in 10 years.
So area teams have appeared in state title games in 31 of the last 32 years.
Often, two or more have advanced to state games across different VHSL divisions, such as when William Campbell, Heritage and Liberty all won in ’02.
High school coaches from across the area have weighed in on the streak in recent years, citing everything from player talent, coaching abilities and the lengthy tradition of some area programs as reasons for the success.
“There’s great tradition in these programs and a great tradition of coaching in these programs,” Liberty High coach Chris Watts said when asked about the impressive run during last year’s playoffs.
Sometimes throughout the years, one program with a talented class of players has helped keep the streak alive.
That was the case in 2013 and 2014 when Altavista won back-to-back state championships and was the only area team playing on the season’s final day.
Or when Brookville did the same thing in 2011 and 2012.
Or when Gretna went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, beginning a meteoric rise during which the Hawks claimed five state titles in nine years and appeared in six state championships.
Since the streak began again in 2002, Lynchburg teams have appeared in a total of 27 state title games across various divisions. They’ve won 20 times.
Sometimes it comes down to quality performances and exceptional coaching. Sometimes maybe a certain amount of luck is involved. And other times, one team simply wants it more.
Graham High coach Tony Palmer, speaking after his team’s 28-13 loss to the Raiders in the Class 2 state semifinals Saturday, recognized the Raiders’ on-field unity.
“They played really hard, and Appomattox is a good football team,” Palmer said. “They’re well deserving of playing for a state title.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for the News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.Staff writer Emily Brown contributed to this report.