Highland Springs senior defensive lineman Kelvin Gilliam said the Springers felt the heartache after their quest to win a record five consecutive state football titles ended in a regional loss last season.
“That definitely fuels us and motivates us a lot,” he said. “This senior group, we felt that pain. All we want to do is just finish out our last high school game with a bang, and that’s with a state championship.”
Highland Springs (8-0) will get that chance Saturday at 2 p.m. at Varina High when they take on Stone Bridge of Ashburn (8-0), a program that knows the heartache even more.
The Bulldogs are making their 10th appearance in the state title game since 2005. They’ve been runner-up eight times, with the only championship in 2007. Five of the losses have been by 7 points or fewer.
Three of those losses were to Highland Springs: 27-7 in 2015, 35-29 in 2016, and 37-26 in 2018. The Bulldogs lost 28-21 to Maury of Norfolk last season.
“We’ve had some opportunities,” Stone Bridge coach Mickey Thompson said. “In Northern Virginia, we just don’t face a lot of teams like Highland Springs or Maury or some of the teams down there. It’s an adjustment. Slow starts have been a problem for us. We get used to the speed of the game, but we’re already down three scores.
“That’s been an emphasis.”
Highland Springs, with several high-major Division I recruits, has five shutouts and has allowed just 31 points. The Springers will be tested by an offense they usually only see when they play Stone Bridge.
The Bulldogs have utilized the run-oriented single wing since Thompson’s first year in 2000. The Bulldogs have averaged 36 points during that span.
Thompson’s offense still uses “the spinner” back and deception in the backfield, but he has modernized some things and utilizes some spread formations.
Quarterback Billy Wiles, who is heading to Clemson as a preferred walk-on, has thrown for 1,243 yards and 13 TDs while running for 207 yards. Eli Mason has run for 883 yards and 19 TDs. Defensive back Jacob Thomas has returned four interceptions for TDs and four punts for TDs.
The Bulldogs average 282.5 yards rushing, 160.5 passing and 58 points. They haven’t scored fewer than 42 points.
“It all goes through Billy Wiles,” Thompson said. “The thing I love about him is the game is not too big for him. He understands the game. He handles every situation and is able to be a leader. I can’t say enough great things about him. He’s worked on his running so he can be a better runner, not necessarily a single wing runner, but a guy who can evade the rush, move around in the pocket. He’s improved that part of his game. The passing part of it, he’s phenomenal.”
Highland Springs coach Loren Johnson studied several successful programs when he became a head coach in 2003 at what is now Unity Reed High in Manassas. One of those was Thompson’s.
Johnson has experience against the single wing at several coaching stops, plus this will be the fourth time the teams have met in the state championship game in the past six years.
“You don’t [see the offense much around here],’’ Johnson said. “You just prepare with the mindset of you’ve just got to be disciplined. You’ve got to have great eye discipline. You’ve got to make sure you rep it as much as you can throughout the week, and then give the kids the confidence and the tools to try to defend it. If you don’t, they’ll run the ball down your throat. They’ve done that to us before.”
The Bulldogs ran for 396 yards in the 2016 game. Trailing 29-28 after Stone Bridge scored and made the 2-point conversion with 1:22 left in the game, the Springers came back to win on a 3-yard TD pass with 26.6 seconds left.
Gilliam, who played against Stone Bridge two years ago, said the Springers have been using a towel in practice to show where the ball goes.
“I think Highland Springs, if they’re getting ready, they’re going, ‘We’re probably going to see Stone Bridge,’” Thompson said. “And that’s the way we always think. We always think we’re going to see Highland Springs. … The preparation for that level of competition, that’s what you’re aiming for.”