APPOMATTOX — Zero is a big deal for Appomattox.
Its defense surrenders yards and allows first downs in the early stages of an opponent’s drive, but the Raiders find ways to come up with a play — either through a takeaway, stop behind the line of scrimmage or critical stand on fourth down — and keep the opponent off the scoreboard.
Take for instance Friday’s 35-14 victory over Gretna in the Region 2C championship game. The No. 3 seed Hawks marched into Appomattox territory on their first six drives, but each series ended without points and only served to build momentum on the Raiders’ sideline.
“Our kids really stepped up when they started getting close to our end zone. We talk about that all the time: Zero is a big deal,” Raiders coach Doug Smith said. “[We] try to keep people out of the end zone, try to keep them from scoring, and they just believed in it and I think they communicated a lot better as they got closer.”
Appomattox (11-2) claimed its fourth region championship in a five-year span and returns to the Class 2 state semifinals after a one-year hiatus. The Raiders host the Region 2D champion at Bragg Stadium on Dec. 7.
Graham (10-2) hosts Central Wise (10-2) at 2 p.m. today.
“It feels amazing because it hurt us last year,” Appomattox senior Cristian Ferguson said of getting back to the state semifinals after falling to Radford in last season’s region championship game. “We had to come back.”
The defense pitched a shutout deep into the fourth quarter and Ferguson provided plenty of offensive punch in building a 35-0 lead.
The senior rumbled for a game-high 168 yards on 15 carries and scored on runs of 4 and 46 yards.
The second touchdown run came less than 2 minutes into the third quarter to give the Raiders a 21-0 lead.
“We were expecting to play them like we know how good they are,” he said. “That’s a good team that we just beat, so we had to come into this week ready to prepare, ready to go to work.”
The Raiders capitalized on their chances to score, while the Hawks (9-4) were consistently turned back whenever they were close to building momentum.
All seven of Gretna’s drives reached Appomattox territory, and the only offensive score to show for it was Taelyn Miller’s 77-yard touchdown run on the Hawks’ final possession against the Raiders’ second-string defense.
The Raiders, despite winning by three touchdowns, only held a 24-yard edge in total offense (348-324).
“We did move the ball; we just weren’t able to do enough,” Gretna coach Cole Simpson said. “ … We just didn’t take advantage of opportunities at all. We did have some opportunities; we just in no way took advantage of them.”
The Hawks’ first six drives ended like this: Punt, a fourth-down pass ruled incomplete in the end zone, a pass broken up in the end zone, an interception by Jordan Scott in the red zone, an interception by Tez Booker that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown, and then being stopped one yard short on fourth down.
“Defensively, we’re just getting better each week,” Smith said. “Gretna is a great football team. Gretna moves the ball well, they’ve got some really good athletes, and so for us to do what we did defensively was huge. That’s what we’re going to have to do. All the teams from here on out are tough, so defensively we’re going to have to be great.”
Appomattox only had two offensive drives in a quick-moving first half. The Raiders scored on both possessions with Tre Lawing capping the opening drive with a 1-yard touchdown and Ferguson capping the second series with his first score.
Lawing put the game out of reach when he connected with a wide-open Daton Megginson down the left sideline for a 73-yard touchdown to give the Raiders a 35-0 lead with 5:25 remaining.
The Raiders quarterback threw for 92 yards on 3-of-4 passing and added 47 yards on seven carries.
Gretna’s Dominick Meeks provided the Hawks’ with their first jolt of momentum when he returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a score, and Miller scored on his long run less than 2 minutes later.
Tabron Mabins was limited to 124 yards of total offense. The Hawks quarterback threw for 58 yards and two interceptions on 4-of-12 passing and rushed for 66 yards on 12 attempts.
Daelyn Miller, who scored six touchdowns last week at Radford, was held to 44 rushing yards on 12 carries.
“We did the things this year we thought gave us the best chance, and that was kind of riding our running backs and offensive line,” Simpson said. “We had a good year and I’m proud of my guys.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.