When Donnie Coleman thought back to earlier this season, he just shook his head.
After dropping four of its first six games, including a trio of blowout losses to Riverheads, Clarke County and Strasburg, the veteran East Rockingham coach said it was tough.
“There were some low points in this season and we were struggling,” Coleman said.
On Saturday, in the third game of the Shenandoah Valley Football Classic at James Madison’s Bridgeforth Stadium, the Eagles put together their most impressive effort of the season and showcased all the improvement they’ve made in a dominating 53-23 rout of one-loss Luray — a team that was previously unbeaten in the Bull Run District.
It was an eye-opening win for East Rock and put a smile on the face of Coleman.
“I’m super proud of our kids,” Coleman said. “It’s really cool to see kids work hard, come together as a team and not point fingers. That’s why we do this stuff. I knew when we woke up this morning that we had a shot. Our kids felt the same way and they played their butts off. That’s a physical, good football team over there. They’ve beat a lot of good teams this year. Nolan does a great job, but our kids were better tonight.”
The opening series of the game was just the start of a dreadful night for Luray.
The Bulldogs fumbled the ball away on their first series and proceeded to give the football away a shocking four more times through the remainder of the first half.
“The turnovers were critical,” Coleman said. “We had to be more physical and we had to win the turnover battle. If you usually do that, you have a shot. Things went south for them early on and fortunately our kids were able to take advantage of that.”
The Eagles certainly did as running back Trenton Morris scored on touchdown runs of 14, 4 and 2 before Luray finally got on board on a 7-yard pass from Dalton Griffith to Austin Holloway to cut the East Rock lead to 19-7 with 3:29 remaining in the second.
But Morris, who finished with a career-high six touchdowns in the game, returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards and cornerback Jaeden Rouse scooped a fumble and took it 55 yards for another score to give the Eagles a big 32-7 advantage at the half.
“We came into the game really hyped up,” Morris said. “We’re kind of tired of people doubting us, talking down on us. So we came out and showed them what we got.”
On the opening drive of the second half, East Rockingham went 75 yards in just six plays with quarterback Tyce McNair capping it off with a 59-yard scoring toss to Morris.
By that time, the score was 39-7 and the Eagles were never threatened from there.
“It feels great,” East Rockingham linebacker Colton Dean said. “We were the underdog coming in and we got it done. We gelled together as a team. We know we might be smaller than most teams, but if we work together, we can come out with a win.”
While the offensive explosion was certainly a highlight for the Eagles, an even bigger story was the play of East Rock’s defense against a potent Luray rushing attack.
The Bulldogs entered with four players with at least 340 yards rushing this season.
The Eagles allowed just one player, Austin Holloway, to surpass 100 yards Saturday.
“I knew in practice Wednesday,” Morris said of when the defense began to turn things around. “Our defensive line just had a different mentality. They were tired of getting kicked around. I was tired of getting kicked around. We definitely stepped up tonight.”
It was also another example of how quickly East Rockingham is growing up this year.
The Eagles have now won three in a row and four of their last five and could move up from their No. 7 spot in the latest Virginia High School League Region 2B power ratings.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our young men,” Coleman said. “Let’s get that out there. They’re a resilient bunch. We could have scheduled soft early on, but we didn’t. We played some heavy hitters and our kids have been through the ringer.”
East Rock closes its regular season next week against one-win Madison County.
Win or lose, the Eagles will be headed to the postseason for a ninth straight time.
And after all the struggles and setback East Rockingham faced early on, Coleman had no reason to shake his head anymore as he watched the players celebrate a big win.
“We’re starting to get some confidence and we’re starting to have some young men grow up,” Coleman said. “They’ve got that field time and they’re starting to understand the game. Confidence is an amazing thing. It’s really weird how it works. You take a teenager and give him some success — it’s pretty cool right now.”
East Rockingham 6 26 14 7—53
Luray 0 7 6 10—23
ER — Morris 14 run (kick failed), 7:39
ER — Morris 4 run (run failed), 11:55
ER — Morris 2 run (Price kick), 6:57
L — Holloway 7 pass from Griffith (Windle kick), 3:29
ER — Morris 90 kickoff return (kick failed), 3:15
ER — Rouse 55 fumble return (Cortez kick), 1:27
ER — Morris 59 pass from McNair (Cortez kick), 9:41
L — Griffith 2 run (kick failed), 6:20
ER — Dean 26 run (Cortez kick), 2:32
L — Windle 36 field goal, 10:35
L — Couper 8 run (Windle kick), 4:30
ER — Morris 43 run (Cortez kick), 1:23