By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Sherando knew all about Salem's high-powered running game, a seemingly unstoppable offensive attack that helped the Spartans to blowout victories in each of their first three playoff games.
But as Warriors senior linebacker George Aston pointed out after the two teams met in the Class 4A North state semifinals on Saturday, "we also knew that they didn't face a defense like ours all year."
The Warriors' defense stayed true to its usual unbreakable form on Saturday, picking up their first shutout victory of the season in a 7-0 win over Salem. With the win, Sherando advances to the state championship game for the first time since 2007. The Warriors will play Dinwiddie next Saturday at Liberty University.
Sherando (13-1) held the Spartans -- who came into Saturday averaging over 300 yards rushing per game -- to just 190 total yards, including just 94 yards on the ground on 32 carries.
The Warriors' offense didn't fare much better, gaining just 170 total yards, but Sherando's defense forced a turnover in the third quarter that set up the game's lone scoring drive, a 27-yard possession that the Warriors capped with the go-ahead touchdown.
"I'll tell you one thing, tonight we got a shutout against the No. 2 team in the 4A North and one of the top teams in 4A. That says a lot about our team," Warriors senior quarterback/safety Reid Entsminger said. "We executed on a high level on defense. Our offense was sloppy today... It doesn't matter how pretty the win is. We're going to the state championship."
It became increasingly apparent as Saturday's game wore on that the first team to score would likely win the football game, and Sherando's offense was finally able to find the end zone with a little help from the Warriors' defense.
Following a 57-yard Sherando punt midway through the third quarter, the Spartans took over at their own 9 looking to somehow break the scoreless tie. But two plays later, Salem running back Coleman Fox (20 carries, 71 yards) was stripped by Warriors defensive back Rhett Morris, and Entsminger -- who had lost a fumble of his own on the Warriors' first drive of the second half -- jumped on the football at the Salem 27.
"I don't know who was on the tackle, but someone stripped it and it came bouncing away. I just saw it moving around, so I just jumped on that thing and huddled it right between my legs and arms," Entsminger said. "People were trying to grab it out, but I was not letting go of that football. Not at all."
Salem held the Warriors a yard short of the first down following three straight running plays, and Sherando opted to attempt a 35-yard field goal. Morris' attempt was wide left, but the play was blown dead prior to the snap following a Sherando false start.
Sherando then chose to try to convert the fourth-and-6, and an eight-yard pass from Entsminger to Josh Ojo gave the Warriors a first down at the Salem 15. The Warriors were in the end zone four plays later, as Entsminger punched it in from two yards out to give Sherando a 7-0 lead with 1:35 left in the third quarter.
"I'm a guy where if I make a mistake, I'm going to make up for it somehow. That was just one way I made up for it. I got that fumble recovery and then I scored the touchdown," said Entsminger, who had 68 yards rushing on 18 carries. "I don't want to let the team down. That's my No. 1 priority, is don't let my brothers down."
Salem (11-3) had an opportunity to tie late in the fourth quarter, as a 9-yard Sherando punt gave the Spartans great field position at the Warriors' 32 with 4:27 remaining.
The Spartans reached the Sherando 20, but two straight incompletions by quarterback Austin Coulling brought up a fourth-and-8. Salem converted the fourth-down play with an 8-yard pass from Coulling (11 for 22, 105 yards, interception) to Devante Payne, but a blocking penalty negated the conversion and forced Salem to replay the down.
The Warriors came up with the stop they needed, as defensive lineman Kyle Warren hit Coulling as he released the football, forcing an incompletion and giving Sherando the ball back with 1:47 remaining.
"How you respond to that situation ... says everything about you, as people and as a unit, and as a team," Warriors coach Bill Hall said. "They get the ball there, and what do we do? We shut them down right there. I think that's just huge. I think it just says about how they live in the moment."
Sherando's defensive hold on Salem's final possession was the second time the Warriors halted a Spartan drive deep in Sherando territory in the game.
On Saturday's opening possession, Salem marched down to the Warriors' 21 before failing to convert a fourth-down pass.
"If you get down there you've got to get some points out of it," Spartans coach Stephen Magenbauer said. "... That was almost how the whole game went. We would get some decent drives going, and we'd shoot ourselves in the foot here or there. We just didn't execute well enough consistently enough. And a lot of that was the fact that they were over there playing pretty good defense."
Sherando will now turn its attention to Dinwiddie (14-0) as the Warriors aim for its first football state championship in what will be Sherando's fourth appearance in a state title game.
"It means the world, because ... as long as I've been in it, you realize how hard it is to get to that game," Hall said. "There's a small window of opportunity and you never know if you're going to have that. We knew this year that we had a special group of kids and things had to go your way and you had to make things go your way. The fact that these guys have realized their potential is a credit to them and its just very rewarding to be a part of the journey together."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org