There was no electrifying speech in the Heritage locker room Friday night, but there could have been.
The Pioneers secondary got burnt to a crisp in the opening half, and the result was a six-point Spotswood lead. For some of the opening first quarters, the home side of Lynchburg City Stadium grew quiet as the undefeated Trailblazers seized momentum and threatened to wrestle away Heritage’s deep postseason hopes.
Then something changed. Maybe something clicked inside players’ heads. Maybe the Pioneers followed coaches’ new assignments perfectly. Or maybe they just realized they didn’t want to go home to stew all winter.
Whatever the reason, Heritage came alive. The defense pitched a second-half shutout and the offense rolled and rumbled to a 43-20 victory.
“I don’t think there was ever a doubt in our minds,” Heritage coach Brad Bradley said after the Pioneers claimed their third straight Region 3C championship. “I’m not saying that in a cocky way. We went in at halftime and made adjustments. There really weren’t any inspirational speeches. We didn’t get on anybody. We had to make a couple adjustments.
“We made a couple adjustments on defense. Offensive line Coach [John] Earich made a couple adjustments. We made the decision we were gonna pound the rock in the second half, and we did. That’s what it was all about.”
That run game, the one that’s proven unstoppable in 2019, accounted for 318 of Heritage’s 366 yards of total offense.
Running back KJ Vaughan scored all six of Heritage’s touchdowns on his way to a 170-yard performance. And fellow back Krystian Rivera added 110 rushing yards on just eight carries.
The duo alternated direct snaps as part of Heritage’s wildcat package in the second half. It wore down the Spotswood defense.
Spotswood (12-1) led 20-7 until Heritage scored with 1:41 remaining in the first half. That jumpstarted what became an onslaught of 36 unanswered points.
“They just wore our guys out,” Spotswood coach Dale Shifflett said. “They’re not playing a bunch of guys up front both ways and we are. It showed there in the second half. Our guys just got tired. It’s a credit to them and the fact that they’re able to do that. We were trying to rotate guys in and out, but they wore us down there late.”
Vaughan scored on runs of 12, 8, 24, 27, 16 and 7 yards. At one point, the senior crossed into the end zone, pounded his chest and pointed up to the starry sky. He thought of his grandfather, Thomas “Slick” Vaughan, who died in April, and of his uncle, Jeff Vaughan, who he said died Wednesday.
Vaughan played for the memories of both men Friday night.
“I looked up, beat my chest and pointed at both of them,” the running back said, “because I know they got me.”
Thanksgiving, then, wasn’t the same around KJ Vaughan’s home.
“It was just different vibes [during Thanksgiving],” Vaughan said. “But the family, everybody’s coming together. It was amazing.”
His team came together, too. Heritage (12-1) clamped down on 6-foot-3 Spotswood receiver Robert Smith in the second half by sending senior Brian Trent to cover him.
Smith hurt the HHS secondary with 123 receiving yards in the first half, off just five catches. He and quarterback Ryan High (139 passing yards) had an uncanny connection, but it disappeared in the second half. In the closing 24 minutes, Smith had just one catch for 12 yards.
“A really good football player there,” Bradley said of Smith. “Brian Trent played unbelievable in the second half.”
And the HHS defense started figuring out other parts of the Spotswood defense.
“None of us had our heads down [at halftime],” Heritage outside linebacker Spencer Goolsby said. “None of us were pointing fingers. We just wanted to get together, because that’s what we do. We play together. So that’s what we did and we just took it to another level. And that forced the shutout.”
In addition to his offensive production, Rivera made tackle after tackle on defense.
With Heritage up 28-20 with 5:43 remaining in the game, he helped force a fumble by sacking High and also had several lengthy kickoff returns.
He traded direct snaps with Vaughan in the second half, becoming the speedy part of what Bradley called this week the bowling ball-lightning 1-2 punch.
“They decide who runs the ball a lot of times,” Bradley said of Vaughan and Rivera. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about who does what. It’s just about getting it done.”
The win sets up a Class 3 state semifinals bout between Heritage and Region 3D champ Lord Botetourt (12-0). LB defeated Northside 31-23 on Friday. The Cavaliers lost to Heritage in last year’s state semifinal in Lynchburg.
For Heritage, the path to winning another state title will go through Daleville. The Pioneers travel there for a 1:30 p.m. matchup on Dec. 7 because LB had more VHSL power points in the regular season.
“We’re right where we want to be,” Bradley said.
“Our goal is to be playing on the last day [of the season] in December.”
Ben Cates covers high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5527.