By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- All season long, Warren County has been motivated by its lack of recent playoff success, by all of the people who didn't believe that a Wildcats squad that lost so much to graduation from last season could make any noise in the postseason.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats used that motivation in a big way on Friday night against No. 9 Park View (South Hill) in the first round of the Class 3A East playoffs. Warren County's offense exploded for a handful of big plays, and the Wildcats forced five turnovers in a 35-23 win over the Dragons.
With the win, Warren County will advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The Wildcats will travel to top-seeded Lafayette next week.
"It's remarkable," said Wildcats senior running back Demetrus Yates, who finished with 146 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. "All year we've been looking forward to getting better and progressing. We've heard ... 'They're never going to be as good as that 2010 team. They're never going to make it past the first round of the playoffs.' We just wanted to prove everybody wrong, and that's exactly what we did."
Warren County (8-3) seemed determined from the start to make a quick statement against Park View. On the Wildcats' third play from scrimmage, quarterback Austen Butler found senior receiver Casey Stewart for an 80-yard touchdown pass that gave the Wildcats a quick 7-0 lead.
Facing a third-and-10, Butler lofted the ball up to Stewart, who out-jumped a Dragons defender for the ball at the Warren County 45 and shrugged off a pair of tacklers downfield before streaking into the end zone.
"It was man coverage and I knew that I could beat him," Stewart said. "The wind kind of brought the ball down, so I went up and got it. When I caught it and [the defender] fell off me, I knew I was going to score."
Warren County's defense then recovered a Park View fumble on the Dragons' first offensive possession, and the Wildcats needed just two plays to go 42 yards to the end zone. Yates capped the drive with a 23-yard scamper that put Warren County up 14-0 with 6:39 left in the first quarter.
"We came out and we got them right off the bat, and that was the big thing. We needed to hurry up and lay the hammer on them just to set the tempo," said Wildcats senior defensive end Blake Steele.
Park View finally settled down later in the first quarter, and the Dragons (7-4) -- who came into Friday averaging 36.1 points per game -- got on the board when they turned a short field into a touchdown, scoring on a 13-yard run by Jaylen Bullock to cut Warren County's lead in half midway through the second quarter.
The Dragons pulled within four late in the first half on a 34-yard field goal by Jacob Newton, but a huge defensive play by Stewart at the end of the second quarter gave the Wildcats all of the momentum going into halftime.
Following a Warren County fumble that gave Park View the ball at the Wildcats' 40 with 24 seconds left in the second quarter, the Dragons made a last-ditch effort for points before halftime.
After being awarded a timeout with one second remaining on the clock, Park View opted to try one final play from the Warren County 35. Dragons quarterback Brett Cliborne (5-for-14, one touchdown, two interceptions) lofted a pass toward the end zone, but Stewart was there to snatch the ball out of the air at the 8-yard line.
Stewart then proceeded to weave his way all the way down the field, utilizing some great blocking downfield to go 92 yards to the end zone to give the Wildcats a 21-10 lead going into halftime.
"I laugh about that because we always say with one second left, make sure you knock it down. Well, Casey found the exception to the rule," Wildcats coach Tony Tallent said. "We talk about being ballplayers, and Casey made a play."
Warren County extended its lead midway through the third when Butler (5-for-10, 196 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) took advantage of broken coverage and found Jontae Rollins for an 85-yard touchdown pass.
Park View immediately answered with a 75-yard scoring strike from Cliborne to Noo-Noo Patterson, and the Dragons made it interesting late in the fourth when Nigel Stanley scored from two yards out to cut Warren County's lead to 28-23 with 1:40 to play.
The Wildcats were able to recover the ensuing onside kick, and two plays later Yates scored on a 52-yard run to seal the win for the Wildcats.
"I was just as excited as the kids," Tallent said. "I was down to my last breath. Kudos to their kids, I thought they played exceptionally hard and they've got some great athletes. I just thought our kids came out and played their tail off tonight."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org