ELKTON — The much-anticipated matchup between former Shenandoah District rivals Riverheads and East Rockingham was over by halftime.
The second half was a mere formality as the Gladiators closed out a dominant 52-6 victory.
Riverheads took advantage of two first-quarter turnovers to jump out to an early 17-0 lead and at halftime the margin had ballooned to 38-0.
“Obviously, you can’t turn the ball over against a good football team, but that wasn’t the whole story tonight,” said East Rockingham coach Donnie Coleman. “That’s a really good football team we played. They’ll probably be playing again late in November.”
While the Gladiators ran the football with their usual efficiency, it was an opportunistic defense and a big-play passing attack that stole the spotlight in the first half.
Riverheads took the opening kickoff and, after one first down, the Gladiators faced third-and-9 from their 44-yard line. Freshman quarterback Bennett Dunlap connected with Braeson Fulton on a 56-yard pass to put the Gladiators on the board. Peyton Skillman booted the first of seven successful extra points for a 7-0 Riverheads lead.
East Rock put the ball on the ground on its second play from scrimmage and Lane Cash pounced on the fumble, giving Riverheads possession on its 46. Zach Smiley found the end zone on a 6-yard run to cap the scoring drive for a 14-0 lead.
The Eagles turned the ball over again on its second series when Aidan Miller picked off a Tyce McNair pass and returned the interception 55 yards before being hauled down at the East Rockingham 9.
The East Rock defense kept Riverheads out of the end zone and forced the visitors to settle for a 22-yard Skillman field goal and a 17-0 Riverheads lead.
Riverheads added three touchdowns in the second quarter to put the game away. Touchdown runs of 18 yards by Smiley and 9 yards by Fulton pushed the margin to 31-0 before Dunlap struck again through the air for the final score of the half.
Riverheads took over on its 21 and Dunlap engineered an 11-play drive that featured three big pass plays. An 18-yard screen pass from Dunlap to Fulton moved the ball into Eagles territory at the 47. Three runs moved the chains to the 37 and then the Dunlap-Fulton duo hooked up again for 25 yards to the 9. With just 23 seconds left in the half, Dunlap found Deacon Moore open in the back of the end zone for a 38-0 halftime lead.
Friday’s victory avenged a 28-0 loss to East Rockingham a year ago.
“We don’t talk much about what happened last year,” said Riverheads coach Robert Casto. “Tonight, our kids just executed well. We were pretty diverse tonight. We ran left, ran right, ran up the middle and then we passed the football.
“Bennett Dunlap made some really good throws and Braeson made some good catches. I couldn’t be any more pleased with the way our kids played. We beat a good football team.”
Dunlap completed all five of his pass attempts in the first half for 138 yards and two scores. That performance, along with a solid ground game and defensive effort, was too much for the Eagles to overcome.
“The defense is a work in progress,” Casto said. “They’re getting better. They’re starting to understand what we want them to do. We’ve still got a ways to go, but they played pretty well tonight.”
The Gladiators scored early in the fourth quarter on a 26-yard run by Cole Burton to make it 45-0 before the Eagles avoided the shutout with a 14-yard pass from McNair to Jaeden Rouse.
Miller scored the final Riverheads TD on a 2-yard for the final 52-6 margin
East Rockingham, now 0-2 after losses to Spotswood and Riverheads, will look to get its first win next Friday against Buffalo Gap.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we do here,” Coleman said. “We’ll come back out for practice Monday and work to get better. I’ll tell you this, I’ve got a great group of kids. Right now they’re green and the lights are really bright, but we’ll keep working and things will turn around for this group.”