Sherando holds off Liberty for regional crown, advances to state semifinal

Aaron Banks

BEALETON – Sherando High School’s football team dropped a tight contest to Liberty (Bealeton) in a regular season meeting back on Sept. 22. The stakes were higher when the two schools clashed again in the Region 4C championship on Friday night, and the result was different.

The Warriors built a 20-point lead early in the third quarter then withstood a Liberty comeback bid, clinching a victory with a clutch scoring drive late in the fourth quarter to cap a 33-21 victory.

The win sends the Warriors, who missed the playoffs last season to snap a string of seven straight postseason appearances, to the VHSL Class 4 state semifinals for the first time since 2013. Sherando will travel to Salem, a 33-32 winner over Blacksburg in the Region 4D finals, on Saturday.

“Happiest I’ve been in a long time,” Sherando senior receiver/defensive back Aaron Banks said after the Warriors’ seventh straight victory. “It’s great to just do it with your brothers. We’re all family so it was a team effort. That was the best part about it.”

Indeed, Friday’s victory was a collective effort.

Hunter Entsminger

Sherando (11-2), behind an efficient offense that put up 440 yards in the win and a stubborn defense that made two defensive stands inside its own 10-yard line in the first half, led 20-7 at halftime and 27-7 midway through the third quarter before a pair of Liberty (9-3) touchdown drives cut that Warrior lead to six with 7:17 to play.

Following the Warriors’ second turnover of the second half, Sherando’s defense delivered a key stop to force a Liberty punt with 5:27 left. Sherando’s offense, which had been reined in for most of the second half, then put together an 11-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that ended with quarterback Hunter Entsminger’s 5-yard touchdown run that secured the win with 1:15 to play.

Warriors head coach Bill Hall said the drive “speaks volumes” about Sherando’s character. It featured eight running plays by Entsminger – all up the middle – as the QB filled the role typically held by injured fullback/linebacker JoJo Doleman in Sherando’s heavy package.

“We like that package a lot with JoJo but, I mean, Hunter’s a great athlete,” Hall said. “And you don’t like to run your quarterback like that but in the region championship game, when you need some yards, yeah, I don’t have any problem running him. And he wanted (it). That’s the type of situation he wants to be in, so it was the right situation to run that.”

Sherando, which couldn’t hold a 9-point lead in the second half of its September meeting with the Eagles, threatened to run away from Liberty in the rematch.

The Warriors’ first offensive possession covered 59 yards on just four plays, with Entsminger finding senior Frank Ritter III – who made a spectacular catch in the end zone with Liberty sophomore Justin Lawson in his face – for a 24-yard touchdown strike and an early 6-0 lead.

“First half was great. We were getting our blocks on offense, wide receivers running good routes, making good plays on the ball,” said Entsminger, who completed 13 of 17 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 85 yards and a score. “That catch Frank had, I don’t even know how he caught it. I thought he dropped it, honestly. Things like that really just set the tone for the game.”

Junior running back T.J. Washington, who carried 19 times for 103 yards, gave Sherando a 13-7 lead in the first quarter with a 10-yard touchdown run set up by Joseph Kelliher’s fumble recovery at the Liberty 16.

A 22-yard touchdown pass from Entsminger to Banks on fourth down sent Sherando into halftime with a 20-7 lead, an advantage preserved by two big defensive stands that kept Liberty out of the end zone.

The Eagles turned the ball over on downs at the Sherando 8-yard line on the first play of the second quarter when Raymond Morton’s fourth-down pass was batted down by sophomore linebacker Payne Bauer.

Liberty threatened to cut into Sherando’s lead right before halftime but, after reaching the half-yard line with a first-down run, lost yardage on three straight plays and turned the ball over on downs again at the 8. Bauer recorded a tackle for loss on third and fourth down for the Warriors.

“The whole defense was grinding,” Banks said. “I mean the key was just competing. We knew they were gonna get some plays but we just had to respond. And we did.”

The Warriors opened the second half with a 73-yard scoring drive that ended when Entsminger and Banks hooked up again for an 8-yard TD pass.

Facing third-and-goal from the 8, Banks, one-on-one with a Liberty cornerback, took an extra second to gain inside position on a slant route. Entsminger double-clutched before firing the pass to Banks, who on Wednesday gave a verbal commitment to play for the University of Richmond next season.

“I really worked a move a little bit, put extra sauce in that,” Banks, who had eight receptions for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the win, said with a laugh.

A Sherando fumble pulled Liberty back into the game.

The Warriors’ second possession of the third quarter ended on first down when the ball squirted free at the mesh point between Entsminger and Washington on a read-option play, a turnover that set up a 1-yard TD run by Parker (25 carries, 190 yards, 2 TDs).

Riding that momentum, Liberty then cut Sherando’s lead to 27-21 on Markael Gaskins’ 20-yard TD run with 7:17 left.

“We all know turnovers are unacceptable in any phase of the game,” Entsminger said. “… We really just needed to regain from what the turnover did and just come back next series and just really signify what Sherando football is, just coming back through adversity and responding.”

Sherando’s defense held Liberty to 288 yards of offense, 272 of which came on the ground. Morton completed just 6 of 17 passes for 16 yards and an interception, most of that yardage (14) coming on Liberty’s final possession of the game.

“That first game, it was a tale of they had explosive plays on us, so the fact that we could limit that, I think, was huge in terms of the final outcome of the ballgame,” Hall said. “They had to earn what they were gonna get, so I thought that was big.”