BRIDGEWATER — Excuse Jessie Knight for being rude, but he expected this.
He’s heard the chatter in the halls from his Turner Ashby classmates about the school’s football program and the struggles it’s faced, but he said he’s always felt like the Knights were close to a turnaround.
So when the TA coaches told Knight and his teammates to keep building off the momentum from a season-opening win a week ago, he said that wouldn’t be an issue.
“Everybody was ready to go, ready to play,” Knight said. “We were talking about taking no prisoners this whole week. We went without taking any tonight. That’s for sure.”
Turner Ashby won its second straight to open a season for the first time since 2010 by dominating on both sides of the ball as the Knights defeated perennial playoff team Western Albemarle 48-26 in non-district action in Bridgewater on Friday.
It was a statement victory for TA, which equaled its win totals from each of the past two seasons.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Turner Ashby third-year coach Chris Fraser said. “There’s so many doubters in the school and people that won’t play football because the program has been struggling a little bit. These are the guys that worked all year long. It’s paid off. I’m just proud of the group we have and the fact that they stuck with it.”
It’s been a challenging couple of seasons for the Knights, who won just two games in 2017 and 2018. But after a 24-2 win over William Monroe in Week 1, players said they felt confident.
In the season-opening victory over the Dragons, it was TA’s defense that was impressive. Against the Warriors, the offense stole the show.
“It’s unbelievable,” Fraser said. “They keep getting better every week. We kept telling our kids all week long, ‘We’re not going to shut everybody out.’ Bad things are going to happen at times with the ebbs and flows of the game. You just have to keep plugging away. Our guys got that second wind and we kind of sucked it up a little bit and the offense just exploded.”
The two teams exchanged possessions early during a scoreless first quarter that showed off the tough-nosed defenses both squads rely on, but things changed quickly.
C.J Haskins connected with Nico Valle on a perfectly-placed 60-yard touchdown pass to put the Knights on the board first, but Western responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by a 32-yard touchdown pass from Carter Shifflett to Breaker Mendenhall to even the score at 7-7 with 8:36 remaining in the second quarter.
From there, TA continued to show off its balanced offensive attack with Wyatt Campbell scoring on a 13-yard run after a trio of big plays from Jared Peake and then standout running back Grant Swinehart scoring on a 33-yard run down the right sideline to give the Knights a 21-7 lead with 1:26 remaining in the first half.
“We’ve just really drilled it in practice this week that we were going to get after them up front,” TA receiver Brandon Onestak said. “That allowed C.J. to get time in the pocket, make some great throws. Then we have one of the best running backs in the area, so if we can get him a crease to get off and running, it’s huge. The line did a great job and I think that’s why we were so successful.”
The Warriors cut into the lead with a 43-yard field goal from David Long as the first half expired, but that had no impact on the confident Turner Ashby offense moving forward.
The Knights scored on all four of their possessions in the second half — Swinehart scored once, Jalin Quintanilla had another and Haskins added two more on the ground — and by the time Haskins capped the game with a 50-yard scoring burst up the middle with 6:20 remaining, the TA sideline had turned into a celebration with a 2-0 start well in hand.
“This is great,” Swinehart said. “This is the icing on the cake to my senior year. I’m ready to keep continuing this. We’re on top of things. We come out here and execute. I think we’re just rolling this year.”
There wasn’t much that didn’t go the Knights’ way on Friday as the defense, which had given up 41.3 points the past two seasons, continued to thrive and the offense showed the type of balance it has been missing in recent years.
“The offensive line was just dominating tonight,” Haskins said. “They did a great job protecting the pass and blocking for the run. They just clicked tonight and got the job done. My offensive line stepped up, Grant ran well on the outside, the receivers played well. It all just clicked. It felt like practice.”
It was a breakout performance for Haskins, who is in his first year as the starting quarterback after playing safety and backup running back last season.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder finished 13-for-18 passing for 231 yards and a score and added nine carries for 83 yards on the ground and two more touchdowns.
“I was just so happy for him,” Swinehart said. “C.J. is such a hard worker and he’s been putting the hard work in all offseason. He never takes a day off. I’m just so proud of him.”
Other TA offense weapons were also strong with Swinehart leading the way with 17 carries for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Jared Peake finished with 110 total yards as a slot receiver and Nico Valle finished with six catches for 114 yards and a touchdown.
“We went up there and enforced our will and it really showed us that they couldn’t stop us,” Haskins said. “It gave us a lot of confidence and our defense was giving us a good cushion. It feels great. It’s been a long time. It feels really good.”
It was a frustrating evening for Western, who has reached the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, as it finished with just 107 yards rushing and 258 yards of total offense in the loss.
The Warriors had their chances in the second half as quarterback Carter Shifflett finished 13-for-17 passing for 151 yards and a score and added another two rushing touchdowns in the attempted comeback, but the Knights continued to respond accordingly and never let Western get closer than two scores.
“I’m sure our kids are [frustrated],” Western coach Ed Redmond said. “We’re going to take care of that. Give credit to Turner Ashby. They played a real good ball game tonight. Give them credit for the win. They played hard enough to earn it.”
For the Turner Ashby players, responding to each Warriors touchdown in the second half was arguably the most impressive part of their second-straight win to start the season.
It was the first time Western has lost to a Valley District team since a 29-13 setback to Spotswood on Sept. 9, 2016 and just their second since 2014.
“We stressed all week that we knew they were going to make plays,” Onestak said. “We weren’t going to get down. We were going to have that winning mentality. We wanted to just keep pushing, keep fighting.”
As his teammates celebrated with fans outside the Turner Ashby locker room, Knight couldn’t help but smile as his fellow classmates suddenly became believers.
There’s no hard feelings from the big man, he said, but everyone should start to expect this from the Knights moving forward.
“I’m very proud,” Knight said. “I couldn’t be more proud. I love them. It feels amazing. We just need to stay focused, remain humble and take it into next week.”