Early miscues cost Wildcats in playoff loss

FREDERICKSBURG — Warren County’s football team knew it couldn’t gift wrap opportunities for James Monroe in Friday night’s first-round game of the Region 3A East playoffs. Not as the underdog 14th seed looking to knock off the No. 3 Yellow Jackets.

But two first-quarter fumbles by the Wildcats set the tone for what would quickly turn into a rout on a chilly night at Maury Stadium. James Monroe turned those first two Warren County fumbles into touchdowns and rolled to a 49-0 win.

“They’re explosive and they showed that tonight. We made a couple mistakes, had a couple plays that we didn’t make and they certainly took advantage of them,” Wildcats head coach Steve Crist said.

Warren County’s (4-7) game-opening drive stalled at midfield after the Wildcats failed to convert a fourth-and-3, a move that Crist said was made in an effort to seize some early momentum and keep the ball away from an explosive James Monroe (9-2) offense.

Instead, it led to James Monroe’s first touchdown drive of the night, a nine-play, 50-yard march that ended with senior quarterback Jay Scroggins finding Kendrick Wilkins for an 8-yard scoring pass.

Warren County then fumbled the football on its next two drives, leading to James Monroe staking a 21-0 just a few seconds into the second quarter.

“We swarm to the ball,” Yellow Jackets head coach Rich Serbay said of a James Monroe defense that forced five turnovers, including four fumble recoveries. “Holy mackerel, we’re like hungry dogs. If that ball’s on the ground, we’re going to find it.”

The Wildcats’ first fumble came as senior Eric Baker (four catches, 36 yards) hauled in an 18-yard pass from junior quarterback Robert Rutherford before a hit from a James Monroe safety jarred the ball loose. Yellow Jackets’ senior Isaac Evans scooped up the ball near the Wildcats’ 45 and returned it to the 24-yard line.

James Monroe was in the end zone two plays later on a 25-yard run by senior Vincent Eura, the first of his three rushing touchdowns on the night.

Warren County lost another fumble on a botched handoff on its second play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, and James Monroe recovered at the Wildcats’ 21.

The Yellow Jackets converted a fourth-and-goal from the seven on a quick pass from Scroggins (9 of 16, 103 yards, 2 TDs) to Keyshawn Johnson to take a 21-0 lead with 11:50 left in the second quarter.

Warren County forced the Yellow Jackets to punt on their next two possessions, but James Monroe added on to its lead with a 40-yard touchdown run by Eura that gave his team a 28-0 lead with 4:18 left in the first half.

“They’re talented all over the place — quarterback, running backs, wideouts, really good offensive line. I knew that they were going to make plays,” Crist said. “We had to try to limit them. … They did pretty much what we expected them to do route-wise and run-wise.”

The Wildcats tried to answer as they marched 61 yards — highlighted by a 39-yard pass from Rutherford to Cameron Ford — but the drive stalled at the James Monroe 16 following a failed fourth-down conversion.

A James Monroe fumble right before halftime was recovered by Warren County’s Cody Vaughn at the Yellow Jackets’ 27 with 10 seconds left, but Rutherford’s second-down pass was intercepted in the end zone by Scroggins as time expired.

“We had a couple times in the first half where we were down inside the 20, 25 and weren’t able to get the points. That takes a little momentum away from us,” Crist said.

A failed onside kick attempt by Warren County to start the second half gave James Monroe great field position at the Wildcats’ 47, and Eura was in the end zone six plays later on a 17-yard touchdown run.

Eura finished with 115 yards and three rushing touchdowns on just eight carries. James Monroe as a team had 373 yards of offense, including 270 rushing on only 24 carries (11.3 yards per carry).

“They tried to take the outside away from us and we hit them inside with Vincent,” Serbay said. “… And they took away our outside passing game with the linebacker cutting across. Jay’s a great quarterback. He audibled six or seven times tonight and it really made a difference.

James Monroe extended its lead to 42-0 with Jewan Davis’ 3-yard run in the third quarter, and Eura set the final margin with a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown with 11:42 left to play.

Warren County gained 252 yards of total offense. Rutherford completed 14 of 24 passes for 128 yards and an interception while completing a pass to eight different receivers. Randall Harris led the Wildcats’ rushing attack with 60 yards on 14 carries.

Defensively, Warren County did force three turnovers, but two fumble recoveries came in the fourth quarter against James Monroe’s second-team offense. James Monroe will face John Champe, a 10-7 winner over William Monroe, in next week’s second round.

“I’m proud of the way that the kids fought and got better, and came back and went after it every single week,” Crist said of a season that saw Warren County open the year with a 0-5 start. “It wasn’t easy. We dug ourselves a hole early but we fought and I’m proud of them for that. They never gave up. To get back here after where we were is an accomplishment. We didn’t want to end it tonight but to get back to the playoffs from where we were is a pretty good accomplishment for this group.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com