East End rivalry headlines second round of high school football playoffs

East End rivalry headlines second round of high school football playoffs
Captains meet at mid-field prior to kickoff of a November 9 meeting between Highland Springs and Varina. (Source: WWBT NBC12)

HIGHLAND SPRINGS, Va. (WWBT) - If you’re a high school football team in Region 5B, it means you’re in arguably the toughest region in the state and will likely get championship-caliber competition in each and every round of the postseason. Highland Springs and Varina are both built to make deep playoff runs, but one of their seasons will come to an end on Friday night, as they meet in the regional semifinals.

Plenty of story lines surround this match-up. The Springers and Blue Devils are East End rivals, meet annually in the regular season, and both boast winning traditions- all of which adds a layer of excitement to the already high stakes of Friday’s second round game.

“These kids have known each other since they were in elementary school,” said Highland Springs head coach Loren Johnson. “Some of them went to elementary school together, some of them have spent the night at each other’s homes and stuff like that, so the only thing that separates us are, now, school logos and colors.”

“We probably know each other better than we do any opponent we play,” Varina head coach Stu Brown noted. “It boils down to execution. I think the first meeting two weeks ago, eleven days ago, execution is what won that football game.”

The match-up Brown is referring to is the November 9 season finale between the two, a 27-20 Springer victory, and a game that saw neither team lead by more than seven points. At that point, both squads knew the playoffs were ahead. On Friday, they meet again for the right to keep playing.

“It’s been a great learning point, some good things we can learn to see them later on in the season,” said Varina senior defensive lineman Alonzo Ford. “We know the mistakes they made, we know the mistakes we made. We know they’re going to correct their mistakes, but we know we’re going to correct our mistakes, too.”

“You gotta tweak a little bit and you gotta work extra hard to do it twice,” said Johnson. “To beat a team twice is very difficult, I don’t care who you are... I’m not sleeping a lot this week, I can tell you that.”

Brown notes that his Varina team may have the most weapons its had in 25 years, as Isiah Paige leads a strong group of skill players, while the Blue Devils boast a strong line on both sides of the ball as well. Four-time defending state champion Highland Springs, meanwhile, has won 40 games in a row and is strong in all three phases, a special teams area in particular that has caught Brown’s eye.

“If I was playing with LeBron, and I was playing pick-up at the local park, I’m giving the ball to LeBron. They’re LeBron is Isiah Paige,” observed Johnson, who says Blue Devil quarterback Bobby Dunn is a like a basketball point guard with many players to distribute the ball to. “They’ve got some other guys. They’ve got a couple Michael Jordans and a Scottie Pippen, they got a lot of guys that can do a lot of things with the football.”

“The Manchester game, the Colonial Forge game, us last week, they dominate in the special teams area,” said Brown. “That just tells you that Loren doesn’t leave any stone unturned and they’re very sound in everything they do.”

The gap between Varina and the defending champs may not be as big as one might think. The Blue Devils are 9-2, but their regular season was bookended by seven point losses to the top two seeds in the region. When Varina won this year, it was in dominating fashion, as the Devils posted a margin of victory of 49 points per game in their nine wins.

“There’s a reason why we lost those two games,” said Brown. “We’re talking about the Division 6 state champion and the Division 5 state champion that’s won 40 games in a row. They don’t make the small mistakes that we make and for us to get over that hurdle, we’ve got to go out there and execute.”

“Here in the last couple of years they’ve played extremely well,” Johnson added. “They’ve had good athletes at the skill position and on the offensive and defensive line, so they’re a very good football team, and I’ve thought they’ve been a very good football team for the last couple years, just one or two mistakes stopped them from getting them to where they want to be.”

For all of the times these two programs have squared off, this marks just their third postseason meeting and first playoff showdown since 2006. Varina is looking to end one of the most impressive runs in the history of Virginia high school football, as Highland Springs is 68-3 since the start of the 2015 season, each campaign ending in a state crown. The Blue Devils are also hoping to snap a seven game losing streak to their arch rivals.

“They have been the dogs lately,” noted Varina senior offensive lineman Makei Hamilton. “But this 2020 class is something special, so I’m hoping we can put a stop to this.”

“We’re going to get everything thrown at us, from the kitchen sink to the roof of the house, and I’m aware of that,” remarked Johnson. “They are a formidable opponent to be reckoned with and we understand that.”

Highland Springs and Varina meet on Friday night at Hermitage with kickoff set for 7:00pm. The winner will face the victor of Deep Run and Manchester in the Region 5B championship game next weekend.

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