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HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Rivals ready for new round
READ MORE: Before heading out to today’s two local playoff games, read up on the teams in the preview capsules.
When members of the Massaponax and North Stafford football teams reflect on their high school careers, it likely won’t be the many lopsided victories they’ll remember most.
The past two meetings between the programs have been classic encounters, including Massaponax’s 23–17 overtime victory on Oct. 25.
The Panthers (12–0) and Wolverines (10–2) will add another chapter to their budding rivalry today when they square off in the 5A–North state quarterfinals at Massaponax.
North Stafford won the 2012 meeting 24–23 after a late touchdown was set up by a punt off the helmet of Massaponax lineman Vinny Mihota.
Wolverines head coach Joe Mangano said he expects today’s game will come down to the final possession, as well.
“Of course you don’t want it to come down to that but when you look back on it those are the kind of games you want to be a part of,” Massaponax senior two-way lineman Steven Sobczak said. “You can’t really talk about a blowout. Even the ball getting kicked off of Vinny’s helmet, we still talk about that game. So this is definitely the kind of game you want to be a part of.”
Mangano said there is no bitterness between the former Commonwealth District foes, just mutual respect. He said the games with the Panthers have featured healthy competition in addition to the dramatic moments.
North Stafford senior kicker and linebacker Joey Slye said players on each team don’t know each other as well as they do their county rivals, but the past two games have intensified the anticipation of the upcoming contest.
“We’re always going to have the rivalry with the Stafford teams because we know a lot of them from middle school,” Slye said. “But games like we’ve had with Massaponax make it a rivalry kind of like the Patriots and the Colts where it’s a rivalry because it’s two good teams playing each other.”
Slye recently met Mihota and Sobczak on a recruiting visit to Virginia Tech and that was the first time he’s conversed with Massaponax players away from the field. Mihota and Sobczak both have orally committed to the Hokies, and Virginia Tech has expressed interest in Slye.
“He’s a cool guy,” Sobczak said of Slye. “He was like, ‘Nothing against you off the field, but when we’re on the field, it’s a war.’ We feel the same way.”
While the 2012 meeting featured one fluky play, it was a series of plays that propelled the Panthers this season.
Massaponax trailed 17–7 in the fourth quarter when the Wolverines launched a punt snap over Slye’s head, and he kicked it out of the back of the end zone for a safety. The Panthers later blocked Slye’s field goal attempt that would have put the game out of reach with 2:20 remaining, setting up an 80-yard touchdown drive that culminated with Javonte Latney’s 1-yard touchdown run with 30 seconds left in regulation.
Latney caught the two-point conversion pass from Alphonzo Trice to tie the game at 17. He later scored the game-winning 10-yard touchdown run on the Panthers’ first play of overtime following a North Stafford interception.
“Honestly that game was a learning experience,” Sobczak said. “You always hear it preached, ‘Never give up.’ But when you’re actually in the situation and you see it happening right in front of your face and you actually get the results you want from not giving up, you can’t beat firsthand experience.”
Massaponax coach Eric Ludden told his players not to get carried away with the victory because they’d likely see North Stafford again in the playoffs.
Mangano said earlier this week he’d rather play an unfamiliar opponent at this point of the postseason, but Ludden said it doesn’t matter.
“I think when you get to this part of the tournament, everybody’s tough and they all do a good job of coaching,” Ludden said. “So I don’t think either one’s going to be easier than the other one.”
Mangano said the programs’ mutual respect starts at the top. He called Ludden, who has guided the Panthers since the school opened in 1998, the “best coach around” the Fredericksburg area.
“He always says that right before we play,” Ludden said with a smile, “tries to get me to relax.”
There’s not much chance Ludden will relax this week. Slye said both the Panthers and Wolverines are focused teams with good chemistry, and that’s why the past two meetings have been so hard-fought.
“It’s definitely hard to beat a team like that twice,” Massaponax senior cornerback and wide receiver Tony Barnett said. “So they’re going to come in hot and fired up to play us. We’re going to come ready, too.”
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