Heritage coach Brad Bradley is in an enviable position in one respect, as he prepares his Pioneers (13-1) for the not-so-enviable task of playing Phoebus (13-1) in the Class 3 football state championship game at noon Saturday at Liberty University’s Williams Stadium in Lynchburg.
His team does not lack for motivation.
First, there were the naysayers. Bradley says some thought the Pioneers might take a step backward after graduating starters at 11 positions from last year’s team, most notably Elijah “Lala” Davis, an Old Dominion recruit who ran for a nation-leading 3,670 yards as a senior.
Then there’s the memory of the Pioneers’ final game of a year ago, the 20-12 loss to Hopewell in the Class 3 state final. Add in the fact they’ll be playing in their hometown of Lynchburg, just minutes from their school, and the Pioneers have several layers of motivation.
“I think the biggest thing for this group that’s kind of motivated them is that nobody’s given them a chance with all of those (2018 graduates) gone,” Bradley said. “How are you going to do it (this season)?”
Rather than relying on a single superstar like Davis, the Pioneers have done it by utilizing numerous players in a spread offense averaging almost 35 points. Quarterback Jabari Blake, a 6-4, 220-pound senior, has led the way, throwing for 1,997 yards and 15 touchdowns, and rushing for 1,242 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“The biggest thing that’s improved about his game is that he’s really become a good running quarterback this year,” Bradley said, while noting his QB has thrown only eight interceptions in two seasons. “I think that’s really opened up a lot of things for this offense.”
Blake might be the team poster-child for motivation and not just because he wants to atone for last year’s loss to Hopewell. Bradley says that Hampton University offered Blake a scholarship but then, two weeks ago when he went there, the Pirates did not accept his commitment.
“Right now recruiting’s opened back up,” Bradley said. “He’s got a ton of looks from Division II and multiple offers.”
Bradley says KJ Vaughan, a 5-9, 209-pound junior, has been the Pioneers’ biggest surprise this season. He’s rushed for 1,442 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Heritage’s go-to receiver is Chris Megginson, a 6-foot, 180-pound senior who had five receptions for 160 yards and touchdowns of 52 and 41 yards against Lord Botetourt in the state semifinals. Megginson, a Liberty University recruit, has 36 receptions for 675 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.
“They like to spread the ball out and run the ball on you,” Phoebus coach Jeremy Blunt said. “They use that quarterback to run the ball, use that running back to run the ball, get the ball into the receivers’ hands on the perimeter and then take some shots on you.
“I would say they’re balanced but they have the ability to put numbers up. Our guys are going to have a challenge this week to stop an explosive offense.”
That offense netted 372 yards in the 42-39 victory over Lord Botetourt. Satisfying as that was, Bradley said the players were not overexcited following the win.
“We’ve made three trips to the state championship game in seven years and we’re proud of that fact,” said seventh-year coach Bradley, who guided William Campbell to state titles in 2002 and ’05. “But at the end of the day, we have a lot of unfinished business.
“It’s great to make the state championship game, but unless you’re holding up the (state championship) trophy, you’ve had a disappointing season.”
Will playing minutes from their school, in front of a large contingent of hometown fans, give the Pioneers the extra motivation to earn the program’s first state title in 16 years? Bradley acknowledges that could help, but doesn’t think it will be decisive.
“We hope to have a big crowd and all of that excitement, but where you play is sometimes overhyped,” he said. “I don’t care where we play — we can play in a parking lot.
“You’ve got to play football. None of that other (stuff) really matters.”
Who: Heritage of Lynchburg (13-1) vs. Phoebus (13-1).
What: Class 3 state final.
When: Noon Saturday.
Where: Williams Stadium, at Liberty University in Lynchburg.
Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, [email protected] Twitter @MartyOBrienDP