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State Semifinal Preview: Growth spurt put Kettle Run in playoffs

COUGARS’ MATURATION IN FOUR YEARS AMAZES

OBSERVERS, INCLUDING THEIR OPPONENTS

BY TAFT COGHILL JR.

NOKESVILLE—Nashon Johnson was a 155-pound freshman safety at Kettle Run High School in 2008.

His first assignment was to tackle University of Virginia-bound running back Corey Lillard, who played for Fauquier County rival Liberty.

“That was hell,” Johnson said.

Kettle Run was a brand new school at the time. It had just become the third high school to open in Fauquier.

The Cougars lost that game to Liberty, 81–0, en route to a miserable 0–10 season.

With no seniors, eight juniors and no one who had ever dressed out for a varsity football game on its roster, Kettle Run was too young, too small and too feeble to compete.

“That was the closest thing to child abuse I ever want to be associated with,” head coach Jeff Lloyd said.

The 2008 campaign seems so long ago now.

Kettle Run captured the Evergreen District and Region II championships this season.

The Cougars (12–0) are unbeaten heading into their Group AA, Division 3 state semifinal against James Monroe (12–0) on Saturday at Kettle Run.

The Cougars have noted the difference between their neophyte program and JM’s tradition, which includes four state championships.

Still, they are far from intimidated by the Battlefield District and Region I champions.

“They’ve got playoff experience,” Johnson said. “But they haven’t been battle tested like we have.”

Those battles started early on for the Cougars. After a winless inaugural season, they went 3–7 in 2009 and 4–6 in 2010. Liberty pounded them, 71–7, in ’09.

That’s why junior running back Joshua Tapscott said the Cougars’ two victories over the Eagles this season felt extra sweet.

“It shows that we never quit even though we were getting killed early on,” Tapscott said. “It feels good walking off the field on the winning side. Now those teams know how we felt.”

Lloyd said he hasn’t been interested in revenge this season.

He’s instead relishing the opportunity to watch the lessons he instilled in his players four years ago pay off now.

Lloyd guided Manassas Park to the Group A, Division 2 state title in 2004. He led it to another state championship game appearance the following year.

He took over at Kettle Run knowing it would be a difficult beginning. But he never imagined how tough it would become.

“I just had to hope that the kids believed in the process,” Lloyd said. “We had to keep preaching ‘There’s a light at the end of tunnel’ and that one day this will pay off.”

Lloyd began to sense a change in Kettle Run’s program last fall. He said even though the Cougars finished with their third straight losing season, they lost two games by a combined six points.

Lloyd noticed his players were getting stronger because of their time in the weight room. He saw their memories from those early whippings harden them.

Johnson is now a 200-pound starting linebacker.

Tapscott (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) was named the Evergreen District offensive player of the year.

He’s rushed for 1,240 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’s also scored on three receptions, three kickoff returns, two punt returns, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Senior quarterback Mac Graham has thrown for 1,072 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s scored on 10 runs, as well.

Junior linebacker Michael Parker has scholarship offers from six schools in Bowl Championship Series conferences.

“We know [James Monroe is] fast and athletic,” Graham said. “But we’ve got some athletes, too.”

The Cougars also have a leader whom veteran Yellow Jackets coach Rich Serbay respects.

Lloyd was at Manassas Park in 2006 when the team was defeated by the Yellow Jackets, 28–14, in a regular-season game.

Graham said Kettle Run has been able to establish its program because the players believe in Lloyd, who inherited a similar situation at Manassas Park.

Those Cougars had lost 30 straight games when Lloyd took over in 1998. Serbay said that when Lloyd accepted the job at Kettle Run, he had no doubt it would be a successful program.

“I didn’t think it would get there as quick as it did,” Serbay said of Kettle Run. “But after seeing [the Cougars] play, he’s definitely instilled in them all of the positive things he was doing at Manassas Park. It was just a matter of time. Now they own Fauquier County.”

Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/hsfb/2011/11/30/state-semifinal-preview-growth-spurt-put-kettle-run-in-playoffs/

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