A year ago, York and Lafayette met with matching 8-0 records and the Bay Rivers District title on the line. Few figured in the wake of their unforgettable game, a thrilling 35-34 York victory, either could repeat that level of excellence this season.
Skepticism was natural because both lost 13 key players to graduation. That's hardly seemed to matter, as Lafayette (9-1, 8-1 district) tied for the Bay Rivers title, while York (8-2, 7-2) was denied only by close losses to the Rams and co-champion Smithfield (9-1, 8-1).
York has earned a first-round home game against Poquoson (4-6, 3-6) on Friday at Bailey Field in the Region I Division 3 playoffs for its exploits. Lafayette received the No. 1 seed in the D-3 regional and a bye to the semifinals, where it will play the Brunswick-Park View winner.
"I think our (quick rebuild) had to do with the fact that last year we brought up a lot of young players, and were able to play them a lot," York coach Doug Pereira said. "Having that experience on hand has helped."
It helps, too, that so many young players have developed so quickly. Three freshmen, running back JoMari Becnel, defensive back Devin Campbell and defensive end Darius Reynolds have started and often starred.
Running back Chris Spruill, wide receiver Ben Jagt, linebacker Hunter Collins, defensive lineman Collin Mandrick, safety Myles Brown and cornerback Jordan West are sophomores who have been dependable as new varsity starters. The youthful talent bodes well for the future, but Pereira isn't looking that far ahead.
"Our goal has been to get back to the regional and win it, regardless of our experience," said Pereira, whose team fell to James Monroe in the 2011 regional final. "That's what we've talked about from Day 1."
The star power Lafayette lost from last year's regional semifinalists, including Virginia Tech signee Thomas Smith at wide receiver, could've resulted in a huge dropoff. But the addition of West Point transfer Jahlil Green, who's rushed for 1,449 yards in 10 games, helped in that department, as did the emergence of four other reliable rushing threats.
The fact that the program routinely replaces standout linemen, four this year, makes it the envy of the district. But the Rams are an even bigger threat to win the regional title this season than last year's 9-3 group because of togetherness.
The Rams, quiet standout Green included, are team oriented rather than a collection of individual stars. Like York, the Rams' future is bright, thanks in large part to the return of numerous skill standouts, Green, fullback Schekel Wallace, wide receiver Brandon Villanueva-Pernell and quarterback Brendan McGinty among them.
Like York, the aren't looking past the next few weeks. Their No. 1 seed keeps them home until the state final, should they make it that far.
LET 'EM ENJOY IT
Clark Harrell is a country boy, evident on Saturday when he enjoyed a morning and afternoon hunting. Given his background and druthers, his players would refrain from loud displays of emotion before games or showy celebrations after victories.
But prior to the Packers 22-0 win on Thursday over Tabb, he pointed to his noisy locker room and shrugged with acceptance.
"I'd love it if I were to walk in and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop," he said, referring jokingly to his players as pretty boys. "But that's not who they are and I'm not going to try to make them into something they aren't."
After the Packers beat Tabb to earn their share of the district title, the players celebrated on the field by pointing their helmets to the Smithfield fans and cheering. A Smithfield assistant suggested to Harrell that they wait until after a bigger victory for such a celebration.
Harrell felt, considering the turnaround from last year's 1-9 season, the timing was just fine.
"I told him, `Let 'em enjoy it, because they deserve it,' " Harrell said.
THIS AND THAT
Grafton coach Jared Van Acker said that backing into the playoffs with a 4-6 record in the wake of a loss wasn't ideal. Still, he had no apologies or any lack of confidence.
"I think we're as scary a No. 6 seed as you're going to find anywhere," he said following his team's 31-24 loss to York. "We've played pretty good football the past two weeks, and we're excited to be in the playoffs." …
Warhill's 27-0 win over Jamestown is the first shutout in school history. "We changed our emphasis to gap control, and the guys did a great job of gang-tackling," Lions coach Billy Jarvis said. …
Bruton finished a 3-7 season with a 21-6 win at New Kent. The Panthers' should be improved next season, as only three seniors graduate, while four freshmen played key roles in the season-ending win.
Among the frosh, Ian Gruver had a team-high seven tackles, D.J. Hester started on the offensive line, Elijah Rice ran for 81 yards and Daniel Jones picked off a pass.