NSA football advances to finals

Published 11:52 pm Saturday, November 10, 2012

NSA junior linebacker Jack Russell (34) and junior defensive back Jared Morse (13) sandwich Trinity Episcopal senior running back Bryan Black. The Saints beat the home team 41-21 in the state semifinal on Saturday to advance to the VISAA Division II state championship.

With a running game that just would not stop and a clutch defensive performance, the Nansemond-Suffolk Academy Saints are headed to the VISAA Division II state championship game. The Saints defeated host Trinity Episcopal 41-21 in the semifinal round in Richmond on Saturday.

“Man, what a great effort by everybody!” NSA head coach Lew Johnston said. “That is an excellent football team we beat, and they were playing hard.”

The Saints hosted the Titans two weeks ago and won 22-14, but this game was a different story.

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After trading possessions, the Saints were making offensive progress when the Titans’ defense suddenly had the ball on an apparent strip, and momentum appeared to be swinging in the home team’s favor.

Exactly a minute later, NSA junior strong safety Matt Newhall intercepted Trinity Episcopal and ran it 55 yards for the game’s first score.

“I read the quarterback, saw a man going out, and I just went to cover him,” Newhall said. “He threw a little bit behind him, so I took the opportunity.”

The Saints’ defense stood firm on the Titans’ next drive, and the home team turned it over on downs. Key runs by Newhall and sophomore fullback David Gough set up 12-yard touchdown run by junior running back Jack Russell. Gough ran in the two-point conversion to make it 14-0 with 3:54 remaining in the first half.

Trinity Episcopal got on the board with a 20-yard touchdown pass, but the extra point attempt bounced off the crossbar, and the score at halftime was 14-6.

NSA got the ball to open the third quarter. Several plays into the drive, senior quarterback Tim Burns found junior split end Jared Morse for a long gain that brought the ball to the Titans’ 30-yard line.

“Several passes today were key,” Johnston said. “The one down the middle to Jared — that was (Burns’) third (option). He’d come off of two guys and found him open down the middle. Undoubtedly his best game.”

A strong run by Gough helped set up junior offensive tackle Lee Willis’ 1-yard touchdown run a couple plays later. After a failed 2-point conversion attempt, NSA held the lead 20-6.

With 4:45 remaining in the third quarter, Trinity Episcopal pulled within striking distance of the lead with a 2-yard touchdown run and a successful extra point.

The Saints appeared in trouble on their next drive but Burns connected with junior split end Michael Tyler Lepore on a clutch third down reception for a first down.

Gains by sophomore running back Addison Peak and Gough helped put the Saints on the Titans’ 14-yard line. Russell would not be denied, making up the remaining distance to push the lead to 26-13 at the start of the fourth quarter.

“The line blocked pretty well, and other than that, there’s just a couple of guys I had to dodge,” said Russell who was hit on the chin during the game and will require stitches.

“He’s just tough as nails,” Johnston said of Russell.

Momentum was in the Saints’ favor when Trinity Episcopal fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and sophomore defensive tackle Camden Sutton recovered at the Titans’ 42.

Gough later ran the ball in from two yards out, and Lepore converted the 2-point attempt. The score was 34-13 with 8:14 remaining in the game.

The Titans did not waste much time responding, scoring on a 12-yard touchdown catch and a successful 2-point conversion. Then, Peak fumbled the ball on the Saints’ next drive, and the Titans began driving with 4:45 remaining and the score 34-21.

NSA’s Newhall extinguished the Titans’ drive minutes later with his second interception of the game.

“I didn’t see the guy behind me, but I was in my coverage, and he threw it towards me, so I just jumped up and got it,” Newhall said.

A couple of plays later, Peak rattled off a 77-yard touchdown run to seal the game with 1:43 remaining.

“One of our mantras is ‘Never give up, and never give in,’” Johnston said. “It felt like a heavyweight match there for a while, but Addison gave them the knockout there with the buck sweep.”

Peak came up to Johnston after the game and shared an exchange.

“Good job, buddy!” Johnston said. “Way to come back after the fumble.”

“I had to redeem myself, Coach,” Peak said.

The Saints will now play in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II state title game against second-seeded Blue Ridge School, which defeated Christchurch School 27-13 on Saturday. The time and location of the game are to be determined.