The air was chilly, the play tense, and the fog that descended on City Stadium unrelenting.
But that’s not what Heritage receiver Kyron Thomas and his teammates remember about the Pioneers gutting out a 42-39 victory over Lord Botetourt in last year’s state semifinals.
They remember feeling disrespected after the win.
“One thing I remember the most is after the game seeing the news and seeing that their coach didn’t give us any type of credit for that win,” Thomas said. “He blamed it all on himself, saying he was the reason they lost. He didn’t give our defense, our offense, any type of credit.”
So while Botetourt (13-0) surely wants revenge for being bumped from contention in 2018, Heritage (12-1) is preparing for Round 2 between the two clubs with memories of those old after-the-game feelings. Heritage travels to Lord Botetourt on Saturday for the Class 3 state semifinals, set to kick off at 1:30 p.m.
“Going into this week, I told [my teammates] we’ve got to go out and show [Botetourt] that we’re really the reason for that loss, and we’re really gonna be the reason [this year],” added Thomas, a senior who leads the HHS receiving corps with 42 catches for 822 yards and seven touchdowns.
Botetourt coach Jamie Harless spoke to this newspaper prior to last year’s game, and said of Heritage: “They have a fantastic football team.”
Harless’ squad has been on a roll this year, tearing through opponents with its hulking offensive and defensive lines, a veteran quarterback and venerable running back Hunter Rice.
Heritage and Lord Botetourt had never met prior to last year’s state semifinals. But a new rivalry was born. For nearly a decade, the two clubs have been among the most potent in the state. Since taking over as coach in 2012, Harless has posted a 78-22 record. In that same time frame, Bradley has an 84-22 record at HHS.
Last year’s game was a back-and-forth offensive showdown that went down to the wire and featured more than 800 yards of total offense. And while Heritage escaped with the victory in a game that had a state championship feel, the Pioneers still felt slighted.
“They didn’t give us any credit at all for winning the game,” Bradley said. “For whatever reason, the kids took that personal. But at the end of the day, we’ve got respect for their kids and their program. We know they play really good football.”
Plenty of players who made an impact in last year’s affair graduated in the spring. But the gridiron will be loaded with plenty of talent Saturday. In addition to the hard-running Rice, a junior who racked up 284 rushing yards in last year’s game, the Cavaliers also feature 6-foot-6, 260-pound lineman Gunner Givens — who has multiple Division I offers, including from Virginia Tech, Virginia and Appalachian State — and a host of other hulking linemen.
Rice, the 6-foot, 205-pound son of former Jefferson Forest coach Don Rice, fractured his left ankle in the 2019 season opener against Brookville. He returned to tear up the field in ’19, though, and sported three rushing TDs in last week’s win over Northside for the Region 3D title.
Heritage lost one hero from last year’s game, quarterback Jabari Blake, to graduation. But a host of Pioneers are back for Round 2, including KJ Vaughan, who scored on a 12-yard run in the fourth quarter last year to give his team a 35-31 lead.
“It showed how much heart we had and how much time we put in,” said Vaughan, who has rushed for 1,641 yards and 28 touchdowns this season.
Heritage, of course, went on to win the Class 3 state title with a 24-20 win over Phoebus. And while that one was a nail-biter, it wasn’t as intense as the game against LB.
“We were similar teams,” Thomas said, “and we had a lot of mistakes last year that I went back on the film and watched, so it made the game much closer than it should have been. But at the end of the day, we just had to fight.”
Both teams will have to do that again Saturday, in what will likely be another thriller.
“I think this is a game not only between Lord Botetourt and Heritage,” Bradley said. “I think it’s a game between Roanoke-area football and Lynchburg-area football, because there are two different levels of play.
“I think, over here, we play a little bit more physical style. I think our teams over here are way better. I think our schedule’s way better. For me, it’s a pride thing.”
Heritage is making its third straight appearance in the state semifinal round.
Botetourt, which advanced to a state championship game in 2015, will play in its 17th playoff game in the last five seasons Saturday. Heritage will be appearing in its 18th since ’15.
“Yes, we’re gonna study film. Yes, we’re gonna study our scouring report on Botetourt and who their personnel is and how they do things,” Bradley added, “but once the game starts unfolding, it’s not so much about who is across the sidelines.
“It’s about how Heritage High School handles its business.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.