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Group AA, Div. 3 Football: Jackets rely on true grit


The inspirational quote that has fueled James Monroe’s run toward its sixth Group AA, Division 3 state championship game appearance didn’t come from a movie about football.

Yellow Jackets head coach Rich Serbay instead discovered a gem in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a 2006 biographical drama based on the life of a man’s struggle with homelessness before earning a breakthrough as a stockbroker.


    James Monroe (12–1) vs. Brookville (13–0)

    WHEN: Saturday, noon

    WHERE: Williams Stadium, Liberty

    University, Lynchburg

    RADIO: A live audio broadcast is available

    on City Cable Channel 18.


“Will Smith was leaning on the fence and he told his kid, ‘Don’t ever let somebody tell you, you can’t do something,’” Serbay said. “That’s what I tell these kids. When people said we couldn’t beat York and there was no way in heaven we’d beat Kettle Run, I just told our kids to feed off that, and get yourselves determined to prove everybody wrong. That’s what we did.”

And now the Yellow Jackets (12–1) look to do so once more. They’ll play undefeated Brookville (13–0) Saturday at Liberty University in a rematch of the 1996, 2008 and ’11 state title games.

James Monroe has defied skeptics in reaching the championship contest. The Yellow Jackets lost two starting quarterbacks and both of their two leading rushers have missed significant action.

All-state cornerback Julian Bumbrey was one of the quarterbacks who went down, and 2011 All-Area defensive lineman Ryheem Perrin didn’t return to the team this season.

Serbay acknowledges the Yellow Jackets aren’t a great passing team or rushing team and they’re susceptible to the ground game up the middle.

Still, they’re one of two Division 3 teams left standing.

“Last year’s team, I thought, had it all—offense, defense and special teams—and we came up a few plays short,” JM Principal John Gordon said. “This year’s team has so much heart and determination and I think the experience of last year has really helped carry it forward.”

Serbay said the resiliency is driven by a mix of doubters, tradition, togetherness and the backgrounds of his players.

He said many of the Yellow Jackets haven’t had easy upbringings. For example, kicker David Dit, who connected on three clutch field goals in the state semifinals, is a refugee from Sudan.

Many of Serbay’s other players have grown up in the Hazel Hill and Heritage Park apartment complexes, and Serbay said that has helped them bond, while also creating mental toughness.

“I grew up in the same type of neighborhoods in Yonkers [N.Y.],” Serbay said. “I relate to the kids really well and I know where they’re coming from. My family to this day has never owned their own home. I think these kids are tough because of where they live and that makes a tough bond. You can’t break the bond here. I think that makes a big difference in how we play and how we approach things.”

Senior linebacker Eric Nelson said the players’ lives at home “is a big part because we’re physically and mentally tough.”

The Yellow Jackets haven’t had a host of Division I college prospects over the years. Nelson said instead each player has a bigger purpose for playing. Serbay’s motto is to “play for those who came before you and set the standard for those that follow.”

Nelson said he’s playing this season in honor of his grandfather, Donald Smith, who died of cancer before the season started. Nelson said he thought of Smith when the Yellow Jackets trailed Kettle Run 20–10 in the final six minutes before rallying for a 37–30 three-overtime victory.

“I know he’s looking down watching over me and he wouldn’t want me to give up on anything,” Nelson said. “He always told me to go 100 percent in whatever I do. So I’ve got to live up to it.”

Defensive lineman Kyle Washington said he’s playing to make amends for an incident in last year’s state title game. Washington was frustrated when he realized the Yellow Jackets had suffered a 34–33 loss. So as time ticked off the clock, he threw a punch at a Brookville player and was suspended for the first three games this season.

“This year, I’ve learned how to control my emotions,” Washington said. “I’ve matured a lot. I let the hitting do the talking and I just play football.”

Senior linebacker Tony Scott and wide receiver/defensive back She’Mar Ellis have grown up together in Hazel Hill.

Ellis said the bond they have is deep. Ellis said Scott and the rest of the Yellow Jackets are “really like family” because “we stick together when times are hard.”

James Monroe has experienced its share of tough times this season. But Gordon said with a supportive community, a hardworking coaching staff and tough-minded kids, the Yellow Jackets have persevered.

“Once you have a lot of tests in your life and you’ve been through a lot, you won’t give up so easy,” Nelson said. “That’s why you can never count us out.”

Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526


Take State Route 3 West to Culpeper, then follow U.S. 29 South past Charlottesville to Lynchburg. Merge onto 29 South/460 West just outside of Lynchburg. Take the second Candler’s Mountain Road exit (Candler’s Mountain Road/University Boulevard). Turn left at light onto University Boulevard and continue straight to Liberty University’s campus.

Travel time: 2 hours