With his team trailing Liberty Christian by one point at halftime Saturday night, Heritage coach Brad Bradley had a message for running back KJ Vaughan.
“You’ll get a heavy dose,” Bradley said.
Vaughan was the medicine the Pioneers needed to get going. He was also the 239-pound pill LCA could never swallow.
Vaughan rumbled for 223 rushing yards and Heritage pitched a second-half shutout to earn a 20-7 victory in the Region 3C semifinals at a soggy City Stadium.
LCA (8-4) used a rousing defensive effort and a 29-yard touchdown bomb from quarterback Josh Nelson to Will Wycoff to take a 7-6 lead into the break.
Then the rain came, often falling in sheets. And with it came Vaughan, who either took handoffs from quarterback Kameron Burns or used direct snaps to bulldoze over the Bulldogs defense.
After putting up 84 rushing yards in the first half, the senior — who has now rushed for nearly 1,500 yards this season — put on a show in the second half.
Twenty of Vaughan’s 31 carries occurred in the final 24 minutes, as the rain that pounded the City Stadium turf and reverberated off the mostly empty aluminum bleachers forced Heritage to rely almost exclusively on its running game to protect the football.
Heritage’s second-half performance was a far cry from its play in the opening two quarters, when LCA stalled Pioneer drives. After LCA scored its TD with 2:10 left in the second quarter, Heritage responded with a lengthy drive that resulted in a 1-yard touchdown by Krystian Rivera with 8.3 seconds remaining in the half.
But LCA’s Jaylin Belford blocked Karson Adcock’s PAT attempt for a 7-6 lead.
Vaughan said Bradley’s halftime message went something like this: You guys knew this wasn’t going to be easy, so get fierce.
The change was instantaneous.
“We got heart,” Vaughan said of Heritage’s second-half performance.
Heritage began the third quarter with a five-play, 51-yard scoring drive for a 12-7 lead. Vaughan took every tote and scored on a 13-yard run.
On Heritage’s next possession, Burns hit receiver Kyron Thomas with a 50-yard touchdown bomb to make it 20-7 after a two-point conversion.
Burns completed 4 of 8 passes for 96 yards. Thomas finished with two catches for 84 yards.
Rivera added 72 rushing yards for Heritage (11-1), Region 3C’s top seed. The Pioneers now host No. 2 Spotswood (11-0) on Friday night at City Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
The loss marked the end of a remarkable run for LCA, which made its first region semifinal appearance since becoming a member of the Virginia High School League.
Senior quarterback Josh Nelson passed for 107 yards and completed 9 of 16 passes on a night when referees tried in vain to dry off the football between plays. Senior receiver Tyler Rose finished with seven catches for 45 yards.
Heritage limited LCA to just 37 rushing yards.
“They were just better than us, and we tried to fight and hang with them, and for the most part we did,” Bulldogs coach Frank Rocco said. “Very proud of our kids for fighting until the very end.
“They were just bigger and stronger. When they went to the mindset that they were just gonna pound us and give it to the 230-pound running back [Vaughan] with their 260-pound sniffer back and we have our 190-pound defensive ends just fighting and scratching and clawing, for the most part, we held up the best we could.”
With the rain falling after play concluded, players hit the locker rooms in a flash. But Rivera stuck around and was one of the last players to leave the turf.
“The second half we came out, got our corrections made and had an idea of what we wanted to do,” Rivera said. “And we got it done.”
Vaughan said Heritage had its run game tuned up entering Saturday’s game, in part because forecasts all week had predicted rain. So when Bradley told the running back he’d “get a heavy dose” of running duties in the second half, Vaughan had an answer.
“Yes sir,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Reach Ben Cates at (434) 385-5527.