APPOMATTOX — Here in Raider Country, practically everyone knows the jubilation that accompanies a state championship.
Fans watched their Appomattox football team capture a state title in 2015 — then another in 2016, and another in 2017. Most of this year’s veteran-laden squad owns at least one ring.
Tre Lawing, the hype man for the 2019 Raiders — who routinely runs through the center of the field during pregame festivities screaming at the top of his lungs, and gets the Raiders fans at Bragg Stadium fired up ahead of kickoff as if it’s his job — wants to experience that same happiness.
He’s just a sophomore. Last year, in his first campaign as the starting quarterback, the Raiders came up short of securing a fourth consecutive trip to the state title game.
But Saturday, Lawing made sure his team’s absence from the championship tilt was only temporary, and helped his team overpower defending state champ Graham 28-13 in the Class 2 state semifinals at Bragg Stadium.
The Raiders, once again, have a shot at the trophy — and winning their fourth crown in five seasons.
“I just can’t wait for next week,” said senior running back and defensive back Jaheim Scruggs, who aims to pick up a third ring like his brother, former QB JaVon Scruggs, in the Dec. 14 title tilt. “… That’s all that’s been on our minds since the beginning of the season.”
Scruggs was one of three ACHS players with a touchdown reception. Tez Booker and Tyler Gilliam were the other players Lawing found in the end zone. Lawing (7 for 9 passing for 134 yards) accounted for all four of Appomattox’s touchdowns.
Almost all of the Raiders’ scoring, in fact, was a result of Lawing’s arm, a lesser-known part of the team’s offense, which prominently features the run.
“I feel like teams don’t really prepare for my arm,” Lawing said.
He was right. Lawing’s counterpart on the Graham sideline, senior quarterback Devin Lester, said so.
“We really prepared for the run. He’s a young quarterback, and we didn’t expect him to throw as good as he did,” Lester said.
Three of Lawing’s seven attempts in the first 24 minutes went for touchdowns — a 30-yard pass to Booker, 27 yards to Gilliam and 31 to Scruggs.
The Raiders incorporated enough twists to keep Graham off balance.
First, on the game’s opening drive, Appomattox faced fourth-and-3 from its own 44-yard line. The Raiders sent out the punt team, but Cristian Ferguson took the snap instead, and ripped off a 25-yard run. Three plays later, the Raiders were in the end zone.
In the second quarter, ACHS ran a reverse on second-and-9, and Gilliam found space on the edge for a first-down run.
The Raiders also faked the kick on an extra-point attempt, and Scruggs took it in for two points instead. Coupled with a blocked point-after try on the G-Men’s second touchdown, the play gave Appomattox a two-score lead heading into halftime.
The game still wasn’t out of reach, though, with Appomattox punting twice in the second half and losing a fumble.
“I don’t think that we gave up any, even when we were down,” said Lester, who finished with 206 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-24 passing. Lester found Marqus Ray for a 62-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7 in the first quarter, then went to Xayvion Turner for a 75-yard score that pulled the G-Men to within 14-13 in the second quarter.
But on each of Graham’s ensuing drives after second-half stops, the Raiders’ defense responded.
The G-Men picked up just three first downs in the second half, all in the third quarter.
Those two drives in which they earned the first-down yardage ended in an interception and turnover on downs.
“We knew that they had playmakers all around the field, so the defense did a hell of a job in the second half,” Lawing said.
Appomattox stopped Graham on fourth down on two other occasions in the game’s final minutes, including on a drive that made its way into the red zone.
The G-Men finished with 221 yards of total offense to Appomattox’s 380. Just 15 of those 221 yards came on the ground, where Graham averaged 1 yard per carry.
“We’ve been a pretty balanced team. We’ve got rushers over 1,000 yards,” Graham coach Tony Palmer said of his team heading into Saturday’s game. “They were stacking people in the box, and we were not executing on the edges.”
ACHS had 246 yards on the ground, the bulk of that coming from Ferguson, who carried the ball 29 times for 126 yards.
Lawing put the game away in the fourth quarter, when he amped up the capacity crowd filling the home side of the Bragg Stadium with a 10-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-2 with 1:11 to go.
“That was the dagger drive,” he said.
And Scruggs, who earlier in the game read a Lester pass perfectly for an interception, came up with his second pick of the day on Graham’s last-ditch effort to put points on the board, giving his team a chance to kneel out the clock.
The Raiders will take on Stuarts Draft as they head back to familiar territory in Salem City Stadium with the state title on the line. Kickoff 4:30 p.m. Dec. 14.
“We love Salem. We can’t wait to get back there, and it’s really a dream come true that we’re getting back there,” Appomattox coach Doug Smith said. “But we know it’s not just about getting there; we gotta go do something, and that’s gonna be a tough challenge.”
Emily Brown covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.