By: Michelle Martinelli
Stone Bridge and Massaponax have been here before.
Not together in the regional title game, just one win away from the state championship matchup, but the teams know each other’s habits in deep playoff contests all too well.
In the last two postseasons, the Bulldogs (11-2) and the Panthers (12-1) faced off in the state quarterfinals with both games coming down to the final possession. Stone Bridge advanced to the semifinals with a 50-49 win on its way to the state championship game, while Massaponax won in 2014 with a 29-25 victory.
Both programs possess a culture of winning with an expectation of successful playoff runs, which has led to their Virginia 5A North regional title game Friday at Massaponax High School at 7 p.m.
“It’s not like you’re facing somebody that’s not used to your offense and your defense,” Stone Bridge coach Mickey Thompson said. “Now, it comes down to not so much coaching or scheme — it’s about the players, which is the way it should be. I don’t think there will be any surprises either way, and I just think the better team will win.”
The matchup is simple, Thompson said, with two offenses unique for high school ball: The No. 3-seed Bulldogs’ single-wing formation versus the No. 1-seed Panthers’ option offense.
Stone Bridge’s offense is led by senior quarterback Easton Turner, who boasts a 52.3 completion percentage while throwing for 13 touchdowns and more than 1,400 yards this season, according to The Washington Post. Despite Turner having multiple receiving options, the Bulldogs — who defeated Brooke Point last week — rely on their go-to running back in senior Joshua Breece, who averages 7.6 yards per carry and ran for more than 1,300 yards this fall.
“We know they’re very well-coached, and they play very hard and disciplined every year, which [leads to their] solid program,” said Massaponax coach Eric Ludden, whose team beat Potomac Falls last Friday. “We know that we’re going to have to play very well.”
Thompson pointed to his defensive line as the leaders of the team who set the tone for each game. Led by seniors Daniel Renaud and Aidan McFarlane, the front four are vocal players with a commanding presence on the field, ready to halt Massaponax’s run game led by seniors running back Trey Watkins and quarterback Kamrin Jackson.
Watkins leads the Panthers with 119.5 yards on the ground per game — with 1,553 on the season, according to MaxPreps — and Jackson averages just more than 100.
“It’s a triple option (offense), so no one can really try and do their own thing,” McFarlane said. “We all have to [work] as a unit, and each player has a specific job and they can’t mess up or let the whole team down. We’ve just got to have each other’s backs.”
While both coaches said they motivate their teams through a tradition of high standards, the Bulldogs fell short in the state championship game last season — a loss McFarlane said they’ve been looking to “avenge” all season.
For their 14th regional title game, Thompson said his seniors want another shot at a state title and that means finishing strong against Massaponax.
“The big thing for them is the fear of ‘this could be it,’” Thompson said. “So [Friday’s] game is all about the fear of losing and the fear of not going out on your own terms. I think that’s all they’re focused on — making sure that this isn’t their last game.”