By Greg Brill -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Even when its last chance for the playoffs seemed exhausted with last week's loss to Sherando, Warren County still kept faith that a berth in the Division 3, Region II field could be earned with a win Friday night against arch-rival Warren County, along with a little help from the outside.
And on a clear and chilly evening, the stars aligned for the Hawks.
Though Cliff Woodard's 204 rushing yards and a touchdown were crucial in a 17-0 win, the containment of Warren County's Marty Haley was as much a factor in Skyline clinching a playoff spot as anything.
Needing only 49 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for a second straight season, Haley was hemmed in at every turn and never had a gain longer than nine yards. Whether trying to find room up the middle or trying to get around the edge, a few green jerseys usually were waiting to stop Haley. Haley finished with a net of 18 yards on 16 carries in his final high school game.
"We wanted to play them tough and we wanted to stop the run," Skyline defensive lineman Luke Pingley said. "Our goal was to keep [Haley] to 50 [yards] and we did [hold him to less], which is a great team goal."
Skyline had so much to play for, and it showed. The Hawks (6-4) knew they could ill-afford a slip-up against the Wildcats (3-7), who entered with a two-game win streak and had won on the same field in a major upset two years ago. Skyline also needed some help from Briar Woods, and got it when the Falcons knocked off Dominion 35-12 Friday, allowing the Hawks to enter the postseason.
"We came in here motivated -- Senior Night, last home game, and to get into the playoffs," said Woodard, who finished the regular season with 1,438 rushing yards. "We had so much motivation. We worked hard [all week] in practice. When it was 0-0 [deep into the first half], we just kept battling."
Deep into the first half, both defenses were doing whatever it took to keep the other out of the end zone. But with time ticking down, Travis Custer took a wing-back reverse for a gain of 23 yards to the Warren County 10. Three plays later, Woodard took a direct snap from the 3 and powered in off the right side for a 7-0 lead with just 36 seconds left.
After holding the Wildcats on the opening series of the second half, the Hawks struck again. Skyline had to go a long way to do it, too.
Backed up at their 5, the Hawks got out of the shadow of their end zone with Custer getting gains of 8 and 17 yards on two more wingback reverses. Each carry netted a first down.
The drive had one more big play in it -- a halfback bomb down the far sideline that went from Woodard to Kyle Phillips for a gain of 39 to the Warren County 5 -- and Travis' brother, Rodney, capped the 95-yard march with a 5-yard run and 14-0 lead with 5:14 left in the third.
With the Wildcats wondering where Woodard (27 carries) might look to run next, the wingback series that worked for Travis Custer (six carries, 63 yards) gave the Skyline offense much more clout.
"The defense overplays and we've got the lead block out there for Travis," Woodard said, "and he's a good back."
The Wildcats thought they had a defensive touchdown when Haley intercepted Josiah Patrick and went the other way 86 yards for a touchdown. But the return was called back due to a clip, and Warren County had to settle for a drive beginning at the Skyline 33.
With the drive stalling at the 17, Haley tried to get around the edge on a third-down carry, bounced back, and got swarmed by Pingley for a 9-yard loss. Then on fourth down, defensive tackle Zach Moran got through and hit quarterback Tyler Post as he threw, with the pass falling harmlessly to the ground.
A 32-yard field goal by Derek Helsley on Skyline's next drive left no doubt of the outcome.
The play of Skyline's defensive front dictated play throughout. The foursome of Pingley, Moran, Alex Nickens, and Ben Schurtz were nothing short of brilliant, opening things up for linebackers Dylan Hill, Michael Perry, Rodney Custer, and Phillips to close off ballcarriers before damage could be done.
The Wildcats were held to five first downs and 85 total yards.
"I'm so proud of those kids," Skyline coach Heath Gilbert said. "[Haley] was a major focus. He's so explosive. That's just awesome.
"We challenged them all week. Coach [Mike] Mitchell and I worked the defensive line and we were really on them all week long to contain [Haley]. It was going to be big for our guys to do their jobs to protect the linebackers so they could make plays. And [defensive coordinator, Steve] Burton had those guys coached-up. We had a good game plan."
Skyline was disappointed at this time last season when it didn't get an 11th game, watching as Millbrook got the last of four berths with a upset of Sherando. The field expanded to six this season, and the Hawks also didn't have to worry about a Millbrook win against Sherando again when the Warriors got a game-winning field goal in the final seconds on Friday to win 9-6.
Now the Hawks will prepare for a road trip at either Park View, Goochland, or Western Albemarle next weekend.
"It's been our goal since Day 1," Woodard said of the playoffs. "We've been working and working. Unfortunately we lost three in a row [before Friday]. Tough ones. But everything worked out."