BRIDGEWATER — Thirteen consecutive times Bridgewater College has stepped on the football field and thirteen times the Eagles have returned to Memorial Hall to ring the Victory Bell.
But the tolls from the old brick building on Saturday were different, the kind that will echo for years to come.
Bridgewater players, coaches and fans first rushed the field, then to the bell for a celebration 14 years in the making as the Eagles held off Randolph-Macon 28-21 to secure the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship and give them a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs for the first time since 2005.
“It’s been a long journey and there have been a lot of things we had to overcome,” said Bridgewater coach Michael Clark, who will make his seventh playoff appearance in 25 years at the school. “I’m excited for the kids. Having had a run a couple generations ago, I know the value of it. To be able to say we’ll be able to pass this on to another generation, I’m very proud of that.”
Bridgewater (9-0, 7-0 ODAC) entered Saturday having not lost since Oct. 20, 2018, when Randolph-Macon (7-2, 6-1) scored a two-point conversion in double overtime to beat the Eagles on the way to last season’s ODAC title.
But Bridgewater has been a different team since that day, and week by week built toward Saturday’s rematch, which saw it race out to a 21-0 halftime lead behind an impressive offensive performance by Demetreus Jalepes and another dominant effort by the defense.
“We changed our mindset last year, and things started to turn around after we played Macon,” senior quarterback Jay Scroggins said after leading Bridgewater to a school-record 13th consecutive victory. “Ever since then everybody on this team bought in and we’ve just been locked in and focused.”
Jalepes finished with 168 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and also had three catches for 22 yards and a score while Scroggins threw two TD passes, giving him 22 on the season against just one interception.
The Eagles came up on the right side of two big fourth-down plays early in the game. After marching into Bridgewater territory largely on the back of Tre Frederick, Randolph-Macon came up short on fourth-and-1 when Gary Ramey Jr. met the ODAC’s all-time leading rusher in the backfield.
Ramey finished with 12 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss and one sack. Fellow senior linebacker Re’Shaun Myers had 15 tackles along with a forced fumble and a pass breakup. The Eagles held Frederick to 112 yards on 28 carries after the fifth-year senior had racked up 469 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in the previous two meetings.
“Tre’s a great player and I look forward to seeing what he’ll do in the future,” Ramey said. “But me and Re’, we bounce off each other. When I make a play, he’s going to make one. To be able to shut them out in the first half like that and get big third-down and fourth-down stops, that just defines Bridgewater football.”
Bridgewater took over on its own 25, but soon moved into the red zone after Jalepes raced up the middle then bounced to the sideline for a 55-yard gain. Three plays later, the Eagles faced fourth-and-a-foot from the 8-yard line and converted on a sneak by Scroggins to set up the first score of the day, a 7-yard pass to Jalepes.
Already leading 7-0, Scroggins opened the second quarter with another touchdown pass, finding Chad Jones in the back corner of the end zone. By halftime, it appeared the Eagles were well on the way to yet another blowout victory.
But Randolph-Macon took some momentum back in the third quarter, stopping Bridgewater on third-and-short near midfield before Frederick capped a 10-play, 74-yard drive with a three-yard score to make it a 21-7 BC lead.
With senior Burke Estes replacing Presley Egbers at quarterback in the second half, the Yellow Jackets moved the ball more efficiently and got within eight points on a touchdown pass to Sam Tanner with 9:39 to go.
But Jalepes broke through the middle on Bridgewater’s very next snap, racing 71 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead to 28-13.
The Eagles recovered the onside kick after a late R-MC score, then took a knee to begin the celebration.
Roughly 30 minutes later, after the bell had rung, Scroggins was still in full pads among the throng of fans and carrying the game ball. He hadn’t let it out of his possession since securing one of the biggest victories in his school’s long, proud football history.
“I haven’t put this down yet,” he said. “This is it. This is what we’ve been working for, this ODAC championship ever since the year started.”