SALEM –– In preparations for Saturday’s Group 1A state championship game with Riverheads, Galax coach Mark Dixon said that he felt his Maroon Tide would need some help. A turnover would be useful, a special teams score might be of assistance, a defensive game-changer would be cool.
Winning the battle straight-up, man-on-man, worked out pretty well for the Maroon Tide, too.
Galax controlled the patch of real estate between the tackles nearly the entire afternoon but still had to endure a harrowing final sequence of events before hoisting the state championship trophy for the first time after a 7-6 win over the previously-unbeaten Gladiators at a balmy Salem Stadium.
“I thought we were really physical,” Dixon said. “To be honest with you, the offense was really physical. We just couldn’t finish drives. We’d jump offsides, we’d get a holding call, we’d get off-schedule, we fumbled one, we tried to find ways to lose it. That’s what was worrying me. But it was kind of appropriate for this team to win this way. Probably no other way.”
Galax (11-4) won its 10th straight after opening the season with a 1-4 mark, with three of the losses coming down to the wire.
As would this one.
A Charles Harris touchdown on the Maroon Tide’s opening series stood as the game’s only touchdown until, on fourth-and-goal from the Galax 9-yard line and the fourth-quarter clock down to a few precious seconds, Riverheads quarterback Garrett Campbell scrambled and found Taz Miller in the end zone for a touchdown as zeroes lit up on the scoreboard.
“My stomach dropped,” said Galax lineman Daniel Edwards.
Riverheads (13-1) unhesitatingly lined up for a two-point conversion. Following a Galax timeout, Campbell’s pass to Tyler Smith, with Galax’s Jacob Brown in coverage, sailed just out of reach at the end zone’s right boundary.
“I knew pre-snap that it was a waggle,” said linebacker Caleb Spurlin, who never stepped off the field other than for one play to get his helmet repaired. “I had the fullback in the flats, and I just said to myself, ‘Lord, please let everybody else cover their guy. Please.’ ”
A play-action bootleg with a run-pass option for the quarterback, the waggle began to unfold in front of Spurlin, just as he had thought it would. Campbell rolled right and released his throw while being dragged to the ground by the Tide’s Christian Brown.
“I saw the ball go in the air, I looked behind me and it’s on the ground,” Spurlin said. “That was all I needed to see.”
The few inches between the ball and Smith’s fingertips were all that separated Galax from a masterful defensive effort and an excruciating loss. Having punted just six times in its previous 13 games, the Gladiators punted on each of their first six possessions.
“They stopped us,” said Gladiators coach Robert Casto, who has brought three state titles to Riverheads since 2000. “I’ve always said it: if you can stop us, you’re going to beat us. They stopped us and they beat us.”
Galax forced a three-and-out on Riverheads’ initial possession and then drove 57 yards in eight plays. Seven of them were Harris carries, including a one-yard run with 6:31 left in the first quarter for the Maroon Tide’s lone touchdown. Elijah Harrison’s PAT sailed through the uprights with almost 42 minutes of game time remaining, but it would prove to be the decisive point.
Riverheads, which ran for 400 yards in last week’s semifinal win at George Wythe, was held to one first down and 33 yards of offense in the first half, all on the ground, with 26 of that total coming on a single Colt Miller fullback trap.
“We just couldn’t get any push on them,” Casto said. “They were a little bigger than us on the defensive line and they were flying to the football, we couldn’t get any push. And in our offense, if they get more at the point of attack than we do, and we don’t get any push, that’s what happens.”
“We worked our butts off all week to get this and to learn it and be prepared and everything,” Zamir Echeagaray said. “I felt comfortable because I felt prepared and that we were ready.”
Galax managed 116 first-half rushing yards but came up empty after Harris’ score, other than keeping the Gladiators’ offense off the field. The Maroon Tide outgained Riverheads 253-214 in total offense for the day, with four plays accounting for 168 of the Gladiators’ total output.
Galax consumed more than half of the third quarter by driving 74 yards to the Riverheads 4-yard line, but was stopped there on fourth-and-1 late in the period.
“Their defense was really good,” said Harris, who finished with 173 yards on 28 carries. He ended the season with 3,229 yards, the second-best single-season total in state history and just 91 yards short of the standard set by Powell Valley’s Thomas Jones in 1994. “It was really hard to run on them. But our offensive line kept grinding and I kept running behind them, we just kept pounding them.”
The Gladiators immediately marched 93 yards in the other direction, keyed by a another huge gain by Miller, a 57-yarder on another trap. The drive accounted for three of Riverheads’ six first downs in the game, but it also came up short of the goal line.
Facing third-and-1 at the Maroon Tide 3, the Gladiators were stopped for no gain on successive running plays and Galax took over on downs with 6:45 to play.
Riverheads was unable to capitalize on a fumble recovery near midfield but did take over at their own 27 with 1:14 to play following a Galax punt. Two plays later, the ball was inside the Tide 10-yard line as Landon Deihl carried a screen pass to the Galax 49 and Tyler Smith’s juggling catch gave the Gladiators a first down at the 6. But two running plays, a bobbled snap and an illegal procedure penalty backed Riverheads up to the 9 to set up the finish.
Dixon didn’t see the end of the game’s final play. He didn’t need to. He’d seen it too many times already in Galax’s 1-4 start.
“I figured they’d catch it, and that would be the way we went home,” he said.
Echeagaray did see it.
“I was like, We finally got one,” he said. “We made history. The Class of 2016 got the first state championship.”
Group 1A state championship
at Salem Stadium
Galax..............7 0 0 0––7
Riverheads......0 0 0 6––6
Gx–Harris 2 run (Harrison kick) 6:31
Riv–T.Miller 9 pass from Campbell (pass failed) 0:00
First downs 12 6
Rushes-yards 42-235 37-138
Passing yards 18 76
Comp-att-int 3-6-0 3-4-0
Return yards 15 23
Punts-avg. 4-36.5 6-35.5
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-0
Penalties-yards 5-30 2-20
Rushing –– Galax, Harris 28-173, D.Peoples 9-35, Orton 4-32, team 1-(-5). Riverheads, C.Miller 6-88, Schaefer 12-21, Deihl 13-21, Campbell 4-8, Hostetler 1-(-1), team 1-(-1).
Passing –– Galax, Orton 3-6-0-18. Riverheads, Campbell 3-4-0-76.
Receiving –– Galax, C.Spurlin 2-14, J.Peoples 1-4. Riverheads, Smith 1-43, Deihl 1-24, T.Miller 1-9