Once... Twice... Three times a champion!

Appomattox head coach Doug Smith raises the VHSL 2A State Championship trophy as Raiders teammates celebrate after defeating Robert E. Lee in a thrilling 38-34 finish.

Snowfall in the Central Virginia region delayed the showdown between Appomattox and Robert E. Lee until Sunday, December 10, but both teams marched into battle at Salem Stadium ready to stake their claim as kings of the gridiron.

This wasn’t the type of game Appomattox Raiders fans have been used to watching throughout the last few years. There was no guarantee of a win by halftime. There was actually tension in the air as the fourth quarter drama was winding down.

As a matter of fact, there was reason to believe the Raiders might fall short in their quest for a third consecutive Virginia High School League 2A State Championship. Although hopeful, Raiders fans were on the edge of their seats until the waning moments of the game against the equally determined Robert E. Lee Fighting Leemen.

The young Raiders squad had their backs against the wall, down by a score of 34-31 with 4:40 remaining in the game after quarterback Jayden Williams scored on a two-yard touchdown run to give Robert E. Lee the upper hand.

Winners come through in the clutch. The Raiders had enough veterans left over from their previous two championship teams to say that they have been here before. The moment was not overwhelming for them, and that sense of confidence carried over to the younger players as well.

Omar Bailey started the crucial Appomattox drive by returning a short kickoff to the Leemen 46-yard line. Collen Shaw caught a pass, giving the Raiders the ball at the 27-yard line, but a dead ball personal foul penalty wiped out the play, backing the ball up to the 42-yard line.  

Javon Scruggs and Devin Dews would take matters into their own hands from that point onward for Appomattox.

Scruggs connected with Dews on a pass play to the 18-yard line. On third-and-1 from the 10-yard line, Scruggs converted a first-down with a run to the 6-yard line.

On a play that will remain legendary in Appomattox Raiders sports history, Scruggs dropped back to pass and saw Dews slightly open ahead of a Leemen defensive back on the left sideline. Scruggs launched the ball narrowly ahead of Dews, giving the senior receiver a chance to make the grab. Dews caught the ball a few yards short of the end zone and dove forward with his stretched his arms out and the defensive back draped on his back.

The extra effort by Dews paid off as he crossed the goal line with the ball in his hands, giving Appomattox a 38-34 advantage with just 1:46 left to defend their championship reign.

One final attempt by Robert E. Lee ended with three incomplete passes, giving the ball back to Appomattox with less than a minute remaining, which was enough time for two kneel-down snaps and a sigh of relief for Raiders players, coaches and fans.  

The game was a back-and-forth slugfest for all four quarters with numerous injuries, penalties, turnovers and lead changes.

Robert E. Lee opened the scoring with an 11-yard touchdown run by Garrett Lawler, which culminated a drive that began when the Leemen recovered a fumbled punt by Josh Ellis of the Raiders late in the first quarter.

Sixteen seconds is all it took for the Raiders to exact revenge with a 48-yard touchdown strike from Scruggs to De’Von Graves. The Raiders began the drive on the Leeman 48-yard line after a short kickoff, a rather unconventional strategy utilized by the Leemen throughout the game which often gave Appomattox possession at midfield. It was a strategy, meant to prevent long kickoff returns, that the Raiders coaching staff had prepared the team for during the week of practice.

“We knew they were going to do that,” Raiders head coach Doug Smith said. “We were ready for it. Our kids were ready, they were coached up to get a return. Most teams will just fair-catch that. We aren’t going to fair-catch it, we’re going to take it back.”

Undaunted, Robert E. Lee scored on a two-yard run by Jayden Williams just three seconds into the second quarter, a score which was set up by a 35-yard run by running back Devin Williams to the Appomattox two-yard line.

On the Raiders next possession, Graves gave Appomattox great field position and a first-down with a reception to the Leemen 9-yard line. The third-down pass from Scruggs to Graves fell incomplete, however, and Nick Fariss booted a 29-yard field goal to narrow the Appomattox deficit to 14-10.

The Appomattox defense thwarted a touchdown threat from the Leeman late in the second quarter. Jayden Williams showed off his dual-threat ability, completing a throw to Douglas Simmons to the Raiders 5-yard line, followed by a run just one yard short of the goal line.

Robert E. Lee was forced to settle for a field goal by Marcos Sasia with 0:12 left until halftime after Graves broke up a pass in the end zone to receiver Tre’ Simmons and Brian Perkins wrapped up Jayden Williams for a loss at the 4-yard line.

Scruggs almost broke free for a touchdown to end the first half on the ensuing kickoff, but was stopped deep in Leemen territory as time expired and the Raiders down by a 17-10 score.

The Appomattox offense began the second half sluggishly despite good field position at their own 47-yard line on another short kickoff. Scruggs was sacked by Dominic Fields, a delay of game penalty set the Raiders back to the 37-yard line, and on third-and-28 a Scruggs fumble ended the drive.

On the Raiders next possession, which began at their 13-yard line following a Leeman punt, Bailey scampered to the Raiders 41-yard line. Shorty afterward, Scruggs attempted a long pass to Dews near the end zone which was intercepted by Matt Larson. Dews was injured on the play and laid on the field for several minutes, but returned to the game to become a major contributor down the stretch.

Appomattox lost several vital players to injuries during the game. Seniors Drew Mann, Daniel Baldwin and Rayshard Hartman all exited the game without returning to the field. 

Scruggs would make amends for the interception with 1:36 left in the third quarter on a 10-yard touchdown run, evening the score at 17 points apiece heading into the final chapter of the championship game.

Raiders defensive lineman Cameron Jackson sacked Jayden Williams, who then missed an open receiver over the middle of the field to bring up fourth down for the Leemen.

Jackson, who made several key defensive stops, said the Appomattox defense was well-prepared for Robert E. Lee’s talented offense by simulating possible scenarios in practice.

“We did a lot of drills and visualized it. We also had our offensive line do their plays a lot, like how they shift,” Jackson said.

What happened next drew the ire of Raiders fans and confusion among players and coaches.

Robert E. Lee badly shanked a punt which ended up behind their own line of scrimmage. Believing the play to be dead because the ball had not reached the line of scrimmage, Appomattox thought the play was over, However, the Leemen’s Dylan Culpen scooped up the loose ball and ran 62 yards into the end zone.

The game was delayed for several minutes as officials explained the ruling to the Raiders sideline. The end result was a 24-17 lead for the Leemen early the final quarter.

In customary fashion, the Raiders refused to bow under pressure. Key runs by Bailey and Scruggs advance the offense to the Leemen 23-yard line. Scruggs immediately followed with a touchdown pass to Collen Shaw, evening the score at 24-24 with 10:32 remaining.

Devin Williams burst through the Appomattox special teams coverage on the next kickoff, all the way to the Raiders 26-yard line. The Appomattox defense stiffened up, holding the Leemen to a field goal and a 27-24 lead.

Scruggs returned yet another short kickoff to the 40-yard line of the Leemen, and the Raiders soon found themselves at the 2-yard line until a personal foul penalty set them back to the 17-yard line.

Bailey followed with a powerful run to the 6-yard line. Several plays later, Scruggs finished off the drive with a rugged 2-yard touchdown run behind the middle of the offensive line which gave Appomattox a 31-27 lead with 6:11 to play.

The fourth-quarter offensive fireworks continued on the next series for the Leemen, who advanced to the Raiders 43-yard line on a roughing-the-passer penalty by Appomattox. Jayden Williams then hit Larson on a pass to the 13-yard line. Devin Williams ran the ball to the 2-yard line where Jayden Williams finished the drive with a 2-yard run and a 34-31 edge for Robert E. Lee with 4:40 left in the game.

From there, the Raiders dug deep and drew from their faith in each other to end the game in a thrilling fashion, Scruggs to Dews, which will live in the lore of Appomattox football and securing a third consecutive Virginia 2A State Championship.

Graves will be graduating from Appomattox County High School this month and  enroll for the spring semester at North Carolina State, where he will play collegiate football. He couldn’t be more pleased by going out on top with his teammates, holding another championship trophy.

“It’s a surreal feeling,” Graves said. “No one would have imagined this. You know, we lost [21] seniors last year and no one really thought we were going to come back and win another one, but we proved everybody wrong. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending of my career ever.”

Mann, who left the stadium on crutches due to a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half, gave the Raiders a speech at halftime which helped to spark a little extra motivation and urgency.

“I saw the fire in their eyes, that they wanted to come out here and win it for me,” Mann said. “Every time they scored a touchdown, they said ‘We’re going to win this for you.’ And when that final buzzer went off, we won it and I was so proud of them. The way they played, they stepped up big tonight.”

“It’s kind of a sad way to end my last football game, I couldn’t do it,” Mann said with mixed emotions. “But, it was a blessing to watch them play. This last five years, this is the most memorable night of my life. It’s way different [than previous years] because you’re a senior and you don’t expect it.”

Coach Smith expressed great pride in the team which, despite his own moments of doubt, stuck together through the bond of faith and the product of hard work throughout the season.

“Just an amazing group of guys who never stop believing,” Smith said. “From the very beginning of the year, we had some great meetings. Some guys turned their life around. Because of their faith, I believe they just felt like there’s nothing they can’t do. We do serve a great God, and I’m telling you, you put faith in Him, there’s nothing you can’t do.

“These guys [voluntarily] pray three or four times at practice. I mean, that’s amazing. They do it after meetings, they do it after practice, they do it before practice. So, I just gotta say, you don’t do what you’re doing like this, as much as they do it, and not give God the credit.”

The Appomattox community has played a major role through their support of the team, which was further evidenced by the massive showing of fans in Salem for the championship game, as well as the crowds who lined the streets of Appomattox for a sendoff on Sunday morning and the crowd who welcomed the team home at the Appomattox County High School on Sunday night.

Once again, the formula of the “Power of One” combined with faith has led the Raiders to the promised land of Virginia 2A football. Another state championship trophy returns home to Appomattox.

The Raiders 2017 football team prepared during the off-season. They went into battle. They struggled at times. With faith, they persevered. In the end, they conquered.