LYNCHBURG — Liberty Christian quarterback Josh Nelson made good on his prediction from one week ago.
At that time, the Bulldogs had just conceded share of the Seminole District title by losing to Heritage.
“Next time you talk to me,” Nelson told a reporter, “things will be different. I promise.”
He made sure of it.
The senior gunslinger led LCA to its first playoff victory since entering the Virginia High School League in 2015. The Bulldogs hung on against Turner Ashby, 21-16, in a back-and-forth affair that produced a wild finish at Liberty University’s Williams Stadium in the Region 3C quarterfinals.
“To get the first playoff win, that’s a huge deal for us,” said Nelson, who threw for 147 yards on 10-of-18 passing. “I wouldn’t have rather done it with any other group of guys. I said [last week] we’d be ready and we’d bounce back. And we did.”
Nelson engineered a fateful drive that chewed 8 minutes and 40 seconds off the fourth-quarter clock and resulted in a short plunge by Cade Wycoff that gave LCA a 21-10 advantage with 2:03 remaining.
This one was close the entire way, through.
Turner Ashby took a 3-0 lead in the second quarter off a 35-yard field goal by Marini Spirollari. LCA then grabbed a 7-3 lead two minutes later when Anthony Moore ran in a 1-yarder.
Fifth-seeded Turner Ashby (6-5) started the third quarter off with a bang, using a 67-yard bomb from senior quarterback C.J. Haskins to sophomore Jalin Quintanilla that set up Grant Swinehart’s 8-yard touchdown for a 10-7 lead.
But fourth-seeded LCA, which shut down the Knights’ running game to the tune of just 42 yards on 24 total carries, had an answer at every turn.
The Bulldogs erased the three-point deficit when Tyler Rose reeled in a 19-yard pass from Nelson for a 14-10 advantage and then went up by 11 points on Wycoff’s 1-yard plunge with 2:03 left.
The game appeared over at that point.
But Swinehart barreled down field on the ensuing kickoff, going 95 yards to make it 21-16. TA came up short on a two-point conversion attempt.
The Knights then recovered their onside kick at the LCA 48-yard line and were in business once more.
But Bulldogs linebacker James Wilen intercepted Haskins’ pass at the 19-yard line to seal the win.
“I’m just proud of the way our guys battled, because we’ve been through a lot the last couple years,” TA coach Chris Fraser said of his program, which went 2-8 in both 2017 and 2018, missing the playoffs both years. “To do what they’ve done and turn things around and be able to compete against a really good team, I’m just proud of them. It’s hard losing and it’s hard to know it’s over, but I’m just proud.”
TA had three timeouts remaining after it corralled the onside kick at the 48-yard line. Finding open receivers was really the only option.
“We struggled running the entire game and we had some success throwing the ball,” Fraser added. “So we felt like we needed to throw it.”
Just like Nelson, Haskins threw for 147 yards. The quarterback completed 8 of 16 passes. Quintanilla led the receiving corps with 76 yards.
LCA now plays Heritage, the region’s No. 1 seed, in the 3C semifinals on Saturday, Nov. 23 at Lynchburg City Stadium.
Wilen, whose interception was the nail in TA’s coffin, was frustrated at the beginning of the fourth quarter when he and TA’s Nico Valle went up for a 41-yard pass from Haskins. The two players snatched for the ball at the same time. One referee ruled Wilen had intercepted the ball, but the call was overturned and ruled a complete pass to Valle.
But Wilen got his revenge.
“They were proud of me,” Wilen said of his teammates. “Last year I was struggling with some things and trying to decide if I wanted to keep playing. They kept me in. So it was a big moment for me.”
Wilen’s coaches talked to him during the offseason and persuaded him to return to the team.
“I decided to come out for one last ride,” he said with a smile.
LCA had been bounced from the VHSL playoffs in the first round twice since 2015, losing to Millbook that season and to Blacksburg in 2018.
“We could not lose,” Bulldogs running back Anthony Moore (51 rushing yards) said. “We had that mentality.”
Fraser talked with his Knights and then huddled alone with his eight seniors.
“You can tell they’ve put their heart and soul into this,” the coach said. “… They’ve been through a lot. They heard it in the hallways and we struggled. We’ve taken some bad losses over the last couple years. So for them, I’m just happy that they were able to experience this. They will remember it forever.”
LCA receiver Tyler Rose finished with 109 receiving yards on six catches. As the Bulldogs lined up on defense with after Turner Ashby recovered the onside kick with 1:46 remaining, Rose told his teammates “We can stop them right now and make history.”
Every Bulldog seemed to catch that feeling in the closing minutes.
“It wasn’t just one guy,” Nelson said. “It was the whole team saying it’s time to go win this game and let them stop hanging around. I’m just so proud of my guys.”