All winning streaks have a beginning. And all beginnings, naturally, follow a loss.
For Phoebus, that loss came on Dec. 1, 2007. In the Group AAA Division 5 semifinals on a chilly afternoon in Ashburn, the Phantoms led Stone Bridge 24-14 in the third quarter. But they gave up 24 unanswered points and lost 38-24.
Later that afternoon, a Phoebus assistant found a small towel on the ground. It showed a Bulldog flexing its muscles above the words STONE BRIDGE FOOTBALL. The towel ended up framed and placed on the wall of Phoebus' weight room. It stayed there throughout the winter, spring, summer … and the 2008 season.
"It smacked us in the face that we're not invincible," said defensive end/tight end Daquan Romero, then a freshman. "Anybody can lose no matter who you are."
Well, the Phantoms haven't lost since.
Last week's 60-7 waxing of Bethel was Phoebus' 40th consecutive win, which ties Hampton's VHSL record set from 1995-97. No. 41 could come Friday night against Warwick in the Eastern Region Division 5 quarterfinals.
"To think these teams have been able to string together this many wins in this district and this region is remarkable," Phantoms coach Stan Sexton said. "But I have to say, I'll be glad when we can just move on and not talk about the streak. As I tell the guys, the only winning streak that matters is these next five (playoff) games."
Here's food for thought: Had the Phantoms held on that day against Stone Bridge, their winning streak would be 62 games now. That's assuming Phoebus would have won the following week in the title game — which is likely, given that Stone Bridge beat Potomac 38-0.
Then again, maybe not. The Stone Bridge loss, no doubt, was a driving point.
"Oh, I think so," said Bill Dee, the Phantoms' coach from 1985-2008. "That loss really stuck in their butts for a long time. I think that really propelled the program to new heights. Forty wins … that's a lot of damn wins."
The streak began on Aug. 28, 2008, with a 47-7 win over Maury. And, believe it or not, that was one of Phoebus' closest margins. The Phantoms outscored their 15 opponents that season 720-53. Only two teams came within four touchdowns of them.
One of them was not Stone Bridge. In a state semifinal rematch, this time at Darling Stadium, a ticked off Phoebus demolished the Bulldogs 38-8. It remains Stone Bridge's worst loss ever.
Dee resigned the following January to take an assistant job at Christopher Newport. Sexton, a longtime assistant at Phoebus who had been the head coach at Warwick the previous four years, was hired as his replacement. The ship was supposed to stay the course.
Phoebus followed in '09 with another 15-0 season and state championship. A smooth ride it wasn't. Five of the wins came by five points or less. In four of them, the Phantoms trailed in the fourth quarter. And in three of them, it came down to place-kicker Eric Enderson's right leg in the final seconds.
This year has been more like 2008. The Phantoms' average victory margin is 45 points a game, and their closest call was a 37-12 win over Hampton.
It's a mentality. After a while, winning becomes habit forming.
"We all hate to lose," Romero said. "Some of the guys don't even know what it feels like to lose. The people who do are the ones who have been on the field for four years. We hate what it feels like."
A different cast, the same result.
"We have an expression at Phoebus: Tradition never graduates," said former Phantom and current Old Dominion running back Colby Goodwyn. "When I was a player there, I didn't understand what that meant. Now that I've graduated, I understand it. It's good to see that tradition keep going."
As for the streak, winning games is one thing. Winning rings is another.
"Honestly, the streak doesn't mean anything without a state championship," Romero said. "It means something to the players who have played here over the years and worked so hard. But to me, if we don't win state, this streak is for nothing."
If Phoebus is able to extend the streak to 45 in a row, it would become only the second team in VHSL history to win three consecutive outright championships. And next year, it would have a chance to tie Hampton's seemingly untouchable record of four straight.
Oh, a final note on the towel …
Two days prior to the Stone Bridge rematch in '08, Dee chucked it against a wall in the weight room. Just before the frame's glass shattered, he said something along the lines of "I'm sick of seeing this (use your imagination) thing!"
Not long after Phoebus finished off its one-sided win that Saturday afternoon, assistant coach Anthony Robinson took it over to Stone Bridge's side of the field and threw it in the mud. That's the last anyone saw of it.
After all, it had served its purpose.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times