PENN LAIRD — Ryan High admitted he put some blame on himself.
When Spotswood suffered a first-round playoff loss to Liberty-Bedford after winning nine straight games to close out the regular season a year ago, the SHS quarterback said it was tough for him.
“I know for me personally, after that playoff loss last year, I was really upset about it,” the Trailblazers junior signal-caller said. “It was just extra motivation going into this game.”
High helped second-seeded Spotswood avenge last year’s setback with a 48-8 rout of seventh-seeded Fluvanna County in the Region 3C quarterfinals Friday in Penn Laird.
With the win, the Trailblazers advance to the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2017, where they will host third-seeded Rockbridge County next week.
“After last year — we’ve talked a lot about that this year about not wanting to go out the way we did a year ago — it’s great to finish the regular season like we did, but we want to look for more things to come,” said Spotswood coach Dale Shifflett, who earned the second playoff win of his coaching career. “Our guys have done a good job with that.”
The story of Friday’s game was the Flucos’ inability to finish drives and the Trailblazers’ ability to swiftly take advantage in a lopsided first half that quickly got out of control.
Fluvanna drove deep into SHS territory three straight times to start the game, using 10 different ball carriers to milk the clock and wear down the stingy Trailblazers defense.
But ultimately, the Flucos came away with zero points and Spotswood made them pay.
“We just have to play our game, listen to the coaches,” said Trailblazers defensive tackle Dallas Khalil, who had two big sacks in one of the drives for Spotswood. “We’re a gap-sound defense, so we just have to focus on that and play our technique. A few of the times, we just had to realize what they were capable of. We really settled down and just had a good mentality once they got close to the red zone. We locked down.”
After blocking a 41-yard field goal attempt on the opening drive, High hit Rob Smith for a 73-yard touchdown pass and the two connected on a 28-yard toss later in the quarter — that one came after a Fluvanna turnover on downs — to make it 14-0 in the first.
Spotswood added two more scores in the second with Ben Conahan capping a five-play, 86-yard drive with a 1-yard score and High later showing off his legs with a 47-yard rushing touchdown in which he ran over a defender and made it 28-0 at half.
“They’re tough to contain,” Fluvanna second-year coach Mike Morris said. “That’s the problem with them. They have some formations where you have to honor the run and it’s tough to defend [Smith] when you split him out like that. You can’t really double him because you give up something in the run game. It’s just hard. They’ve got some playmakers, but [Smith] is the best receiver, in my opinion, that I’ve seen this year.”
Conahan added another 1-yard rushing touchdown in the third and Ethan Barnhart, who was held to a season-low 94 yards on the ground, scored on a 10-yard run to make it 41-0 and the Trailblazers emptied their bench before the quarter even came to a close.
One week after racking up over 500 yards of rushing in a dominating rout of Harrisonburg, Spotswood showed that it can hurt teams the other way, too.
“We kind of knew going into it, seeing how they were lining up on defense and knowing they’d be trying to stop the run, we’d have a mismatch this week in the passing game,” Shifflett said. “We came out and used that to our advantage and it worked. That’s why we focus on being able to do both things and being an offense that’s hard to stop. If you can do both, it makes it tough on opposing teams and we’ve got guys who can do that.”
The bend-but-don’t-break mentality from the Trailblazers defense early on proved to be the difference as Spotswood didn’t allow Fluvanna to score until the reserves were in during the fourth quarter and gave up just 169 rushing yards to a stout Flucos attack.
“It was good for our defense,” Shifflett said. “We gave up some yards there early on, but when they got down close to scoring position, we hunkered down and stopped them. That was great for us. Our guys stepped up and kept them out of the end zone.”
On the other side, the Trailblazers offense flipped the script from a week ago.
Against HHS, High completed just 4-of-8 passes as Spotswood relied on Barnhart, Conahan and Cole Myers to run the football during the dominating 47-point win.
Against the Flucos, however, High had arguably his best game of the season as he finished 8-of-10 passing for 240 yards and two touchdowns and added a rushing score. Smith caught both those scores from High and finished with five catches for 164 yards.
“It felt really nice,” High said. “They were stacking the box and bringing a lot of guys, so we knew they were going to be able to throw the ball going into the game. The receivers executed and the line gave me time. It was great. It’s an awesome feeling, for sure.”
Spotswood will now face a familiar opponent next week when it hosts Valley District foe Rockbridge County in a rematch of a game that the Trailblazers dominated earlier this year after they ran away with a 55-10 rout of the Wildcats on Oct. 11 in Lexington.
Since that loss, however, the Wildcats have won four straight and relied heavily on the rushing duo of Gage Shafer and Bret McClung to get their season back on track.
“Our guys know that Rockbridge is a good football team,” said Shifflett, whose first playoff win was a 42-35 win over the Wildcats in 2017. “We came out last time ready to play and they had some early turnovers and we jumped on them. They’re playing well. We know they’re a good football team and we were fortunate to get some breaks early last time. If those things don’t happen, who knows what the score could be this time.”
Before the Trailblazers move their attention, they said they were going to enjoy the win.
After all, it’s what Spotswood has consistently said it’s used as motivation all season.
“We really wanted to win this game,” Smith said. “We’ve really got a good team this year and have a good possibility of making it far. It’s exciting, man. I’m so excited right now.”
Once the weekend comes to an end, however, and the Trailblazers go back to practice on Monday, they acknowledged that their focus will immediately shift to the next game.
Because like High, a lot of the Spotswood players still remember last year’s feeling.
And that’s why they’re all motivated to keep a winning one around a little longer.
“It feels great that we can play another game together,” Khalil said. “We want to win more, though.”