Long TD pass sparks title

LYNCHBURG --

As the state championship trophy passed among the victorious Poquoson Islanders on the field at Liberty's Williams Stadium, Austin Smith made sure he grabbed it and gave it a smooch. "It's one of the biggest accomplishments of my life," Smith said by way of explanation.

At least a couple dozen Bull Islanders earned quality time with the new addition to the school trophy case, since their 23-17 win against powerful Richlands was truly a collective effort.

But Smith was part of a play that turns tides and wins championships. That it occurred moments after he was on the opposite end of such a play speaks to his and his teammates' resolve.

"We faced some adversity today," two-way standout Luke Hill said. "But we never get down on each other. We play together, week in and week out, as a team. When we do that, we're tough to beat."

Poquoson demonstrated from the jump that it wasn't going to get rolled like so many other Richlands victims. The aptly nicknamed Blue Tornado entered Saturday's title game unbeaten and nearly unchallenged. They averaged nearly 50 points per game and had trailed only once all season.

But the Islanders played them essentially to a push in the first half -- a peculiar, 3-2 push, but still -- as both teams left scoring opportunities on the table.

Richlands' high-powered offense finally showed up on its first possession of the second half, when speedy wideout Austin Johnson dusted Smith, playing cornerback, on a streak pattern down the right sideline for a 58-yard touchdown catch.

Suddenly, the Blue Tornado was up 10-2, with a small cushion and momentum.

"Getting down like that," sparkplug quarterback Tee McConnell said, "everybody thinks you're out of it. We weren't out of it, but I knew we had to come down and score quick."

Mission accomplished. Two plays later, on 2nd-and-16 from the Poquoson 21, McConnell lofted a pass to Smith racing down the left sideline. Smith outdueled cornerback Albert Fajardo, gathered in the pass, kept his footing as Fajardo stumbled and ultimately sprinted 79 yards to make it 10-8.

"I ran my route," said Smith of his one reception for the day. "I didn't even know Tee was going to throw it, but he threw it to me. I just stuck my hands out and caught it. Big play."

Smith described it with all of the emotion and enthusiasm of a guy giving directions. That might be why he was able to deliver immediately after getting burned on Richlands' go-ahead touchdown play.

"He bounces back," Poquoson coach Elliott Duty said. "He's kind of an even-keel kid. I don't know where we'd be right now without Austin Smith."

Said Smith: "I figured I had to do something."

McConnell's 2-point conversion pass to William Haskins -- after a five-yard penalty backed up the play -- tied it at 10. Game on.

"Huge play," Haskins said. "If we don't score on that play, they had all the momentum, and it might have been a completely different ball game."

Or, as McConnell put it: "If we don't get that, I don't think we win the ball game."

Smith had played receiver early in the season, but the coaching staff tried out other players at the position as the season progressed and left him on defense.

Come playoff time, however, Smith found himself at receiver again.

"He's an athletic kid, pretty fast," Duty said. "He's kind of been that athlete that we needed to come in and make a catch, make a run. He's made a lot of plays for us on defense and today he made one for us on offense."

Obviously, there was much more to come. Poquoson went quick-strike itself in the fourth quarter on consecutive possessions to build a 23-10 lead.

The Islanders weathered a long kickoff return that set up a Richlands touchdown, then a successful onside kick that set up the Blue Tornado at midfield with nearly six minutes remaining. But the Blue Tornado's last chance went begging after a pair of holding calls -- the last of a remarkable 146 yards in penalties.

Not to suggest that Richlands had an excuse or Poquoson a helping hand. The Islanders limited Richlands to 254 yards and amassed 351 themselves. They held 1,300-yard running back Devon Johnson to 57 yards. They tackled surely and for the most part kept Richlands' dangerous skill players in front of them.

"The whole team played great," Smith said. "Everyone did their job. That's how we won. Doing what we do."

Better than anyone else in Division 3. There's a trophy in Poquoson that proves it, lip prints and all.

Dave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at dfairbank@dailypress.com. For more from Fairbank, read his blog at dailypress.com/fromthetarpit.
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