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Character-driven Manchester riding 11-game winning streak into Region 6A championship

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In a season-opening 49-7 home loss to Highland Springs, Manchester football learned to be a character-driven team. 

And that lesson has been a foundational component of the Lancers' subsequent 11-consecutive wins, said coach Tom Hall, a run that's led to an opportunity to host Saturday's Region 6A championship at 2 p.m. against Western Branch (Chesapeake, 11-2), Manchester's sixth region final appearance in the past seven seasons. 

"They blocked out all the negative noise that was coming from social media," Hall said of his squad's resilience following the loss to the Springers. 

"This group found ways to win because they've played for each other. There is no 'I' in this team. This team is unified, they love each other."

Hall added that many of his players have been teammates since they were 7 or 8 years old. The season has been a roller coaster, he admitted, with close calls in wins over James River (14-10), Region 5C finalist L.C. Bird (23-22), Midlothian (31-30, 2OT) and Monacan (38-31). But the veteran coach who took the helm at Manchester prior to the 1999 season feels like "a proud parent watching my kids grow up right in front of me." 

Part of that pride stems from the Lancers' youth. Underclassmen standouts abound, most notably under center, where freshman quarterback Landen Abernethy and sophomore Jason Wright have rotated to form a formidable 1-2 punch.

Though both can beat you with their arm or legs, they present different challenges to opposing defenses, with Wright the stronger runner and Abernethy the pocket passer. What initially looked to be a quarterback competition has grown to be an effective timeshare free of ego, Hall said, adding that the old adage of "if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one" doesn't apply to the 2022 Lancers.  

"Those kids have completely bought into it, and their families have been great about it," Hall said. "Seeing the production of both of them, it's been pretty remarkable."

Key to the growth of the two young signal callers have been top receiving options and captains Ty'ee Stephens, a deep threat with speed to burn and more than 1,000 yards on the season, and Kyree Richardson, a sure-handed, crisp route-runner in the slot who's made lots of clutch catches late in games. 

Augmenting the passing game's production has been a rugged ground attack spearheaded by physical back and captain Devin Bryant and an imposing offensive line led by junior tackle and captain Kenny Walz. Seniors Gavin Nicks, Will Harris, Evan Brown, Gaige Brooks and junior Divine McCoy have all stepped up as key blockers, improving every week. 

"Teams that go deep in the playoffs are teams that can run the football," said Hall, an offensive lineman at Virginia Tech in his own playing days. 

Bryant, an aggressive back who who runs with a chip on a shoulder that he routinely lowers to seek out contact, is the type of runner the year's Manchester team needed, Hall said, calling him "the heart and soul of our team."

Defensively, lineman Makai Byerson, another captain, is one of the best edge rushers around, a dominant athlete with offers from Tennessee, Virginia Tech and West Virginia (247Sports), among other strong Division I programs. But equally vital have been junior defensive back Jaden Plantin, a disruptive force in the secondary that's contributed to droves of turnovers, and junior linebacker Alazha Lewis, a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. 

Hall said Lewis has well over 100 tackles on the season, among the highest totals statewide. Both Lewis and Plantin were junior varsity players last year. Plantin's also a contributor on offense as a slot receiver. 

"Those kids have been outstanding," Hall said, noting additional standout newcomers like junior linebacker James Howard and freshmen end Jarvell Barksdale.

"Just above and beyond what we imagined we would be this year."

Another weapon for the Lancers has been senior kicker and punter Jon Davis, one of the hardest workers Hall has had in his 32 years of coaching. Most of his kickoffs are out of the end zone, and many punts well-placed to limit the opposition's return opportunities. Plus his range on field goals can exceed 40 yards, Hall said. 

No. 3-seed Manchester lost at Western Branch 14-12 in last year's region semifinal. The No. 4 Bruins knocked out the region's top seed and two-time reigning state champs Oscar Smith 28-14 in the other semifinal last weekend, while the Lancers advanced past No. 2 Thomas Dale in a 38-35 thriller. 

With lots of returners, Hall said the Bruins are largely the same team the Lancers played last year.

"They are extremely athletic, typical 757 team. They beat Oscar Smith. They've got their kids believing, they're well-coached, they fly around defensively. Athletes galore. It is a huge challenge for us," Hall said, adding that good friend Joe Jones, a fellow Hokie and formerly the head coach at Ocean Lakes is now part of Western Branch's staff. 

"Luckily, we're excited about having this game at home and being the only show in Chesterfield, one of three playoff games in the Richmond area. Having home-field advantage is going to help. But Western Branch poses the biggest threat since playing Highland Springs."

ZJoachim@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6555

Twitter: @ZachJoachim

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