Long Reach senior defensive end Michael Zeleznik remembers the conversations about the football program his freshman year.
The team isn’t any good, people told him. They don’t win any games, people said.
And despite the fact that the Lightning went 1-9 in 2013 and 2014 and 2-8 in 2015 to finish with a losing record for the fourth straight year, Zeleznik knew they were building toward something special. It was only a matter of time.
Long Reach coach Jamie Willis knows those conversations all too well. He has been hearing them for a decade.
“The kids know what they say about Long Reach and all that, but the one thing we always talk to our kids about is don’t ever believe the people who are not in this community and what they say about you,” he said. “Our kids are great people and they kept working and working, and this is the product of hard work.”
The Lightning made history Friday night on their home turf against the Raiders, and did so in a fashion that left no doubt about their place in the record books.
Behind three touchdown passes from senior quarterback Tyler Moore and 177 yards rushing from senior running back KaDarrian Booker, No. 3 seed Long Reach put on a dominating display to beat No. 4 seed Atholton, 37-0, to win the 3A East regional championship for the first time under the current MPSSAA playoff format.
Their opponent in next week’s 3A state semifinal round is yet to be determined.
“Ever since we were freshmen we knew all along we would do something special,” said Zeleznik. “We’re leaving a legacy. We’re paving the way for more to come.”
To say the Lightning defense shut down the Raiders offense would be an understatement. After Atholton picked up a pair of first downs on two of its first three plays on its opening possession, Zeleznik and company didn’t allow another first down until the final drive with the clock running and less than two minutes remaining.
In total, the Raiders (7-4) punted five times, turned the ball over on downs four times and threw an interception. Atholton gained only 21 offensive yards in the final 24 minutes of play after trailing at the half, 17-0.
“This is unbelievable to feel this way right now, especially to make a statement like this, 37-0,” Zeleznik said. “We definitely shut down their counter, that’s how they came back on us two weeks ago [in a 14-13 Long Reach win in Week 10], but we definitely shut that down, and our defensive backs started to lock up better. We did what we had to do.”
The Lightning (8-3) struck on their first offensive drive after Booker set the tone with a 52-yard run on the team’s first play. Moore completed a 4-yard touchdown pass to senior Quran Sims (five receptions, 55 yards, two touchdowns) on 4th-and-goal to take a 7-0 lead.
A 27-yard field goal from senior Kevin Carbajal early in the second quarter extended the advantage to 10-0, and Moore connected with junior Luis Gooden Jr. (six receptions, 68 yards, touchdown) on their final play of the half to make it 17-0. Moore went 4-for-4 for 55 yards passing on the 10-play, 66-yard drive and threw a perfect over-the-shoulder pass to Gooden Jr. down the middle of the field for a 33-yard score with 3 seconds remaining on the clock.
Sims caught his second touchdown of the night — a 27-yarder down the right sideline late in the third quarter — to make it 24-0, and Booker broke the school’s touchdown record with a 5-yard score up the middle early in the fourth to extend the lead to 30-0.
Booker carried the ball 28 times to net his 177 yards, while Moore finished 12-for-22 for 157 yards passing and two scores to go with an interception.
Willis said there were no nerves after they “got the monkey” off their backs by winning their first-ever playoff game at Chesapeake last week, a 27-24 come-from-behind victory.
“Our kids came out and fought,” he said. “We were a little tight the first time we played them, but I really believe that last week they learned how good they really are, which is awesome.”
The Lightning players erupted when senior running back Rasheed Chapman broke several tackles and rumbled for a 29-yard score on their final drive to start the running clock, raising him on their shoulders on the sideline in a Rudy-like moment.
Soon after, they celebrated with their head coach by dousing him with the Gatorade jug on a chilly night. Willis seemed unfazed.
To describe what the victory means to him, Willis simply said “overwhelming,” before his voice broke and tears welled in eyes.
“It doesn’t get too much better than this,” he said.
Long Reach (8-3) — 7 10 7 13 — 37
Atholton (7-4) — 0 0 0 0 — 0
LR: Tyler Moore 4-yard pass to Quran Sims, Kevin Carbajal kick [7-0]
LR: Carbajal 27-yard field goal [10-0]
LR: Moore 33-yard pass to Luis Gooden Jr., Carbajal kick [17-0]
LR: Moore 27-yard pass to Sims, Carbajal kick [24-0]
LR: KaDarrian Booker 5-yard run, kick failed [30-0]
LR: Rasheed Chapman 29-yard run, Carbajal kick [37-0]
Glenelg (8-3), a No. 4 seed, beat No. 3 seed Thomas Stone, 27-18, on the road Friday night to win the 2A South regional title.
Junior running back Wande Owens scored on a 10-yard run in the first quarter after a blocked punt by Phil Johnson, as the Gladiators took a 7-6 lead into the second quarter.
Junior quarterback Tyler Reiff gave Glenelg a 14-12 lead with a touchdown run with 3:13 left in the half, and he later scored again on another short run to extend the advantage to 20-12 after the extra point was blocked.
The Gladiators stopped a potential game-tying two-point conversion with 8:50 left in the fourth quarter after a Thomas Stone touchdown, and Reiff’s third score of the night sealed the game.
It’s Glenelg’s fifth regional title and third since 2014. It will face undefeated Damascus on the road in next week’s 2A state semifinal round. The Hornets beat the Gladiators 33-0 in the semifinals in 2014.