Leesburg, Va. – It was a mere 32 yards – and 11 Stafford Indians – that stood between Tuscarora High School sophomore kicker Max Skirkanich and the Huskies’ return to the VHSL 5A State championship game.
As Skirkanich made his way to the field to attempt the kick with just two seconds left, Stafford took a timeout to try and freeze the young kicker. But after the timeout, on the cold night in Leesburg, Skirkanich stepped back and drilled the 32-yard attempt as time expired, lifting the Huskies to a 20-17 win and a berth to the VHSL 5A State championship.
“We’re a gritty team. We’re not the most talented team, but we fight and we hang in there,” Tuscarora head coach Mike Burnett said. “We seem to have a knack to find a way to win.”
Tuscarora’s defensive grit proved true in the final minute of the game as junior defensive back Owen Cary intercepted Stafford junior quarterback Jalen Smith with twelve seconds left.
After intercepting Smith just minutes before, Cary and the Huskies dropped back into a quarter package as the Indians faced a long field and a short clock with less than 30 seconds to play in the tie game. Smith reared back and tossed the ball 40 yards downfield, where Cary made the play, returning the ball down to the Stafford 15-yard line to set up the game-winning field goal attempt.
“They’re one of the best receiving corps we’ve played all year,” Cary said. “But our defense this year plays together so well. It came down to that chemistry.”
On a night where Tuscarora’s offense wasn’t itself, it was the defense and the special teams that elevated the Huskies to the state championship level: Skirkanich knocked in two field goals and placed an excellent onside kick late in the first quarter. Tuscarora senior defensive back Chris Broad recovered said onside kick. Cary intercepted two fourth-quarter passes ending Indians’ threats. And Tuscarora freshman nose tackle Matei Fitz recovered a Stafford fumble.
“Our team is fundamentally sound,” Skirkanich said. “We know when things aren’t going our way on one side of the ball we can turn it over to the other side.”
While the Tuscarora defense and special teams stepped up, the Huskies offense had enough shine to put two touchdowns on the board: Tuscarora junior quarterback Justin Allen found senior tight end Kyle Jenkins down near the goal line late in the first quarter which set up a 1-yard touchdown run for junior running back Leron West. West added a second 1-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
Then Allen orchestrated a fourth-quarter drive from deep in Tuscarora territory that helped flip the field for his defense.
It was a team effort from top to bottom that gave the Huskies the advantage they needed.
“I give Stafford credit. They’re a lot stronger on defense than I thought they would be,” Burnett said. “We couldn’t get our running game going, but at the end of the day, we’re a team and there are three parts to a team. Our defense and special teams were great again tonight.”
With the win, Tuscarora will pack up its bags and make the trip down to the Virginia Peninsula to tango with the two-time reigning state champion Highland Springs Springers on December 9 at Hampton University. Kickoff is slated for noon.
“It’s really not about a state championship, even though that’s what it seems like from the outside,” Burnett said. “For us, it’s about the opportunity to play one more week together.”
1Q 2:43 T Leron West for 1-yard TD run (Skirkanich PAT)
2Q 7:57 S Jalen Smith to Justin Toler for 38-yard TD pass (Plonka PAT)
2Q 3:21 T Max Skirkanich 28-yard FG
3Q 7:15 S Jalen Smith to Justin Toler for 50-yard TD pass (Plonka PAT)
3Q 2:17 T Leron West for 1-yard TD run (Skirkanich PAT)
4Q 10:05 S Aaron Plonka 22-yard FG
4Q 0:00 T Max Skirkanich 32-yard FG