It's not every day you walk onto your high school field to play football in December, much less line up against a team whose quarterback will be playing for the Stanford Cardinal in 2013.
That is just part of the mammoth assignment that the Hanover Hawks gladly accepted Saturday afternoon, hosting their first-ever home state semifinal after playing three in five years on the road, facing the unbeaten Stone Bridge Bulldogs, favored to win the state championship.
Stone Bridge jumped on Hanover early, then the Hawks calmed down, clawed back into the game, fell behind again, fought back, then simply ran out of time as the Bulldogs escaped Mechanicsville with a 28-21 victory to advance to next Saturday's Division 5 State Final against Lake Taylor (who, too, escaped on the road with a 23-21 win at North Stafford) at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.
How close Hanover came to victory is a microcosm of how their season has played out: a team overcoming adversity and, again, coming up just short in a game where they played equal to their opponents.
But it didn't start that way.
Stone Bridge took the opening kickoff and drove quickly, keyed by a 45 yard run by Sterling Dailey run from the always-confusing and rarely seen in high school single wing formation. Dailey scored on a 10-yard run and the Bulldogs took the lead.
Hanover did respond, moving as far as the Stone Bridge 11, but a 28-yard completion to Mason Bazala at the 11 was called back due to an ineligible receiver downfield, and the drive stalled.
Stone Bridge, in three plays and 31 seconds, found the end zone again on another Dailey run, this time of a yard. The big strike on the drive was a 51-yard pass play from Stanford commit Ryan Burns to Jimmy Higgins to set up the second score.
Just 7:36 into the game and Hanover was down 14-0. Was Hanover Head Coach Josh Just having flashbacks to last year's state semi, when the Hawks fell behind 24-0 to South County in the first half, eventually falling 38-22?
"Absolutely not," Just said. "This is a different team."
And they proved it, beginning on defense, stopping a would-be third straight touchdown drive on downs early in the second quarter, then driving down the field themselves. Sam Rogers found Donte Haynesworth on a slant route sliding in the end zone for a seven-yard score, and it was 14-7 at halftime.
Hanover couldn't ask for a better start to half #2, driving 4:38, culminating in a Rogers 3 yard TD run, and it was 14-14. But credit the Bulldogs for punching back, answering with a 6 1/2 minute drive capped by a Christian Strahin 2-yard TD run to make it 21-14.
Hanover had held Stone Bridge scoreless for 27 minutes. Now the offense had to punch back. But, this one time, they couldn't.
Stone Bridge got the ball back, drove quickly, and a D'Ante Yarborough 5-yard TD run with 6:57 to go seemingly put the game out of reach at 28-14.
But Rogers and company weren't done, as the Hawks traveled down field as quickly as their offense would allow, but after great defensive stops by the Bulldogs, Hanover faced 4th down and 24 and the Stone Bridge 27.
Rogers, in what would be his final high school pass, dropped back, rolled left, bought time, then launched a laser to Donte Haynesworth who beat two defenders in the back left corner of the end zone, retained possession, and cut the Bulldog lead to 28-21 with 4:10 to play.
The Hawks' attempt at an onside kick was recovered by Stone Bridge. The Bulldogs slowed their offensive rhythm down, and, with each passing first down conversion, killed the clock. They forced the Hawks to use one timeout, then they sat on the other two. But when Burns rushed for 12 yards for a first down at the Hanover 20 with 1:08 left, it sealed the Hanover fate.
Burns took three knees, Hanover ran out of time outs, and, ran out of time.
Coach Just and Rogers shared a long embrace in an emotional moment on the field after the final whistle, before the traditional post-game handshakes. Rogers was too emotional to speak to us as he left the field for the final time in uniform.
Rogers finished 11-of-22 for 164 yards with two touchdown passes, and with 24 carries for 129 yards and the one rushing score. A key to Stone Bridge's ability to hang on for the win was keying on Rogers' rushing, as he only gained 23 yards in the second half, compared to 106 in the first.
Another problem for Hanover was in the second quarter when, on a run that resulted in a first down, tailback L.J. Jones re-aggravated the ankle injury he suffered two weeks earlier in the Lee-Davis regional semifinal. Jones would not return. His replacement, Lamont Stubbs, rushed five times for 18 yards.
Dailey finished with 20 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns to pace the Bulldogs, now 14-0.
Hanover finishes 2012 at 9-4, with the losses coming in the following fashion:
--After leading the whole game without Sam Rogers, Highland Springs defeats them 24-21 scoring a touchdown as time expired.
--A sure overtime was taken away on a roughing the kicker penalty against Varina, giving the Blue Devils a second chance at a game-winning PAT. They made it, Varina won 21-20.
--Arguably Hanover's worst game, the 10-6 loss at Lee-Davis where Rogers returned at quarterback, but a combination of lack of rhythm on offense and a stingy Lee-Davis defense spelled doom.
And now tonight, their biggest loss margin of 2012.....just seven points. Just one more defensive stop giving Rogers and company the ball back, and Hawk Nation was sure Rogers would find the magic again.
But Stone Bridge ran out the clock, the rabbit never came out of the hat, and an amazing era in Hanover County high school football comes to an end.
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