Falcons fall in state title game

Published 11:51 pm Friday, November 17, 2017

Fuqua School’s varsity football team offered a significant challenge to defending state champion Roanoke Catholic School on Friday in Vinton, but the run game of the undefeated Celtics ultimately helped power them to another title via a 51-36 victory in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) Division III state championship game.

The Celtics (11-0) haven’t lost a game since their 2016 season opener. During that stretch, they have averaged 48.4 points per game and won by an average of 37.5 points.

“You don’t win 20 whatever in a row without being pretty dang good,” Falcons Head Coach Ben Manis said. “They were beat up and battered up from us at the end of the game, but they still out-executed us. They just made athletic plays.”

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The loss was a particularly difficult one for Fuqua given how many times in recent history that it has been knocking on the door of a title. This is the third time the Falcons have reached the state championship game in the last five years, with each campaign ending in a loss.

“It stinks coming out on this side as many times as we’ve had, but how many other teams have had that opportunity?” Manis said. “That’s kind of what I sell to these guys. Maybe one day soon it’ll be our day, but who knows. We had a bunch of people who were telling us we’d have a three-win season, if that, and we’re here. We made it here. So, I love the guys. I appreciate them getting here and working their tails off for us.”

Fuqua finished the year with an 8-3 record.

The Celtics’ narrowest victory in the regular season came against Fuqua; they won 14-7 on the road Oct. 6. The Falcons again made a game of it Friday night, though they stumbled near the start.

Fuqua received the ball first but turned the ball over with a fumble on the second play from scrimmage. Roanoke Catholic drove the ball, scored on a short run and passed for a two-point conversion to make the score 8-0 with seven minutes, 18 seconds left in the first quarter.

On the first play of their next drive, the Falcons again fumbled, but they recovered it this time. Sophomore quarterback Elijah Warner helped them advance the ball some, but they ultimately were not able to make much progress.

The Celtics got the ball back on their own 26-yard line and used their powerful run game to move the ball. The drive was capped by a long touchdown run from running back Mykah English. A successful run for the two-point conversion made it 16-0 with 3:21 remaining in the first quarter.

Then Fuqua began to establish some momentum. Warner made runs for nice gains, and senior running back Benjamin Bailey recovered another fumble and ended up putting together a big run. Warner reached the end zone on a two-yard run, and then Bailey ran in the two-point conversion, cutting the Roanoke Catholic lead to 16-8 with 1:15 left in the first.

The Falcons got the ball back, and less than three minutes into the second quarter, they scored when Warner ran for a 66-yard touchdown. The pass failed on the two-point conversion attempt, but Fuqua had made it a one-score ballgame, 16-14.

The Celtics fumbled the ball on their next possession, and Fuqua recovered it but was not able to capitalize, eventually punting the ball back.

Later, Falcons senior linebacker Billy French grabbed an interception, and the Fuqua offense was able to turn it into three points. Senior kicker Kevin Dunn hit a 31-yard field goal, giving his team a 17-16 lead with 1:06 to go in the half.

Manis indicated it is likely this was the first time Roanoke Catholic had trailed in a game all season.

The Celtics responded almost immediately. English ran for a 63-yard touchdown with 53.9 seconds until halftime. The pass failed on the two-point conversion, but Roanoke Catholic took a 22-17 lead into the second half.

Opening up the third quarter with a good drive, the Celtics were threatening to score, but then Warner intercepted a pass, helping Fuqua once again claim momentum and the opportunity to take the lead.

Unfortunately, the Falcons gave the ball back via an interception that English followed up with a seven-yard touchdown run. The run for two points was good, giving the Celtics a 30-17 lead with 5:55 to go in the third.

Next, both teams had possessions that stalled and ended in punts.

Receiving the ball on their own 42-yard line, the Falcons drove down the field with help from a big catch by senior wide receiver Tyler Thomas. Bailey ended the drive with a six-yard touchdown run. The pass for two points failed, but the score was 30-23 with 50.5 seconds remaining in the third.

Roanoke Catholic, however, had success on the ground during its next drive, reaching the end zone on a long run and then running for two points. The Celtics held a 38-23 lead with 9:14 left in the game.

Fuqua was not done yet, though.

“I’m proud of how these kids played,” Manis said of his players. “They played with character, and they played with pride, and they never quit.”

The Falcons worked their way down the field and scored when Warner connected with Thomas on a five-yard touchdown pass. The extra-point kick was good, making it 38-30 with 5:33 to go.

But the Celtics were able to drive the ball and score on a long run. French prevented them from converting for two points, but they led 44-30 with 2:33 on the clock.

Roanoke Catholic later got the ball back on downs. While trying to get a first down to run the clock out, the Celtics got the edge on a run and managed to score again, adding a kick for an extra point.

Fuqua used the waning moments of the game to try to finish well offensively. On the final play of the game, Warner connected with Thomas for a 22-yard touchdown pass.

Anticipating his own reaction when he and his staff look at the game film, Manis said that the game plan probably should have featured more throwing, including fade passes that asked Thomas and receivers to go up and get the ball.

“Tyler’s done well with that this year,” Manis said. “He had several of those catches this year.”

Thomas recorded four catches Friday for 62 yards and two touchdowns.

Leading the Falcons offensively was Warner, who had 19 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns and who went 9-for-24 passing for 120 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

“Elijah can be a dude,” Manis said. “Only a sophomore, kind of learning our system, he’s come a long ways. Hopefully, it’s something we can build around for the future.”

French had five catches for 58 yards, and Bailey gained 33 yards and a score on nine carries. Junior fullback Christian Adams added 20 yards on five carries.

“Defensively, Warren (Dabney) had a good night,” Manis said. “Isaac (Drummond) had a good night, and Christian did as well. Elijah had a pretty decent night on defense.”

The Falcons will lose 13 players from this year’s team due to graduation, including key contributors on both sides of the ball.

Manis said he will remember this Fuqua team for the temperance of its seniors.

“They never got too high, and they never got too low,” he said. “They were levelheaded.”

Giving his thoughts after playing in his final Fuqua football game, French said, “I think we just fought hard. Couldn’t finish it, but I think we fought hard. Better than previous teams, because we’ve been blown out (by) (the Celtics) so many times, but we fought and made them work for it this time, so I was proud of our guys for that.”

Summing up the 2017 Falcons, French noted that they were a team that had lost a lot of seniors from the year before.

“No one thought that we were going to step up and do well,” he said. “(They) thought we were just done, we were just playing for fun. But it didn’t turn out that way. We had guys step up, junior class, so they’re going to be a heck of a team next year I hope.”