After a week that demanded the Patriot football team have their most concentrated practices of the season - in terms of time management as well as attention to detail - the Pioneers traveled across Prince William County to Gar-Field High School and ensured that their long week would not translate to a longer offseason.
Shorthanded by nearly a dozen players due to COVID-19 protocols, fourth-seeded Patriot consistently kept the dual-threat potential of Gar-Field senior quarterback Bishop Fitzgerald in check and steadily controlled the ball via the run game all night, upsetting the No. 1 seed Indians 13-7 Friday night in the 6B regional semifinal.
Patriot meets No. 2 Massaponax (7-0) Friday at 7 p.m. for the region championship.
Against Gar-Field, the Pioneers (5-1) knew they had to shorten the game as much as possible, in the process containing the explosive Fitzgerald, who had compiled a staggering 1,650 all-purpose yards and 24 touchdowns in only six regular season games. Patriot opened the scoring with barely a minute gone in the second quarter after a punt pinned Gar-Field (6-1) inside their own 5-yard line. The Indians fumbled on the first play of the ensuing possession and Patriot recovered quickly, allowing Keith Jenkins to score his eighth touchdown of the season on the very next play.
“We’re blocking well, we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing out there,” said Jenkins, who was the area’s fourth-leading rusher heading into the game. “Oh my gosh, we worked so hard [this week], we had to focus, no playing around, just keep focus and keep grinding.”
The score remained 6-0 in favor of the Pioneers at halftime and well into the third quarter, as the teams exchanged punts for the next 20 minutes of game time after Jenkins’ score. Late in the third, Patriot’s efforts to bait the Indians into establishing a run-first defense paid dividends when quarterback Cody Rogers’ play-action pass over the middle found Gabe Bigbee, who took it the distance to extend the lead and stun the once-vocal Gar-Field faithful.
Gar-Field responded quickly, with Fitzgerald taking it in on a 12-yard scamper as time expired in the third. The Indians would get no closer, turning it over on downs with 1:54 left. The Pioneers milked the clock further, and on the game’s final play, their punt coverage team snuffed out Gar-Field’s return once and for all.
“I thought we had a really good plan, I just wanted to make sure we stayed healthy long enough to execute it,” said Patriot coach Sean Finnerty. “Because we’re literally no backups at some positions. And some of those guys that couldn’t get hurt, got hurt. And we still figured it out.
“We had people playing at positions they’ve never played before, and they made a heck of a fourth-down stand in the fourth quarter … I am so proud of the defense, I am so proud of everyone who stepped up tonight on both sides of the ball. I give [Fitzgerald] all the respect in the world. He is an unbelievable talent.”
While the Gar-Field renaissance of 2021 ended well short of the Indians’ dream of a deep playoff run, coach Tony Keiling’s admiration of the senior class that began their careers in 2017 with a winless campaign was apparent after the game.
“When I got here, there were 20 or 30 people in the whole program," Keiling said. "It wasn’t even sure that they were going to have a varsity season, so for my freshman class to end up as the district champs, first seed, I’m proud of them. We gave [Patriot] a touchdown on the fumble, it’s just turnovers [that] are the difference in the game.”
Moribund no more, the Indians could return as many as three dozen players to their fall roster. But while Gar-Field can now look toward the summer, Patriot expects to have their missing players return from coronavirus protocols - in Finnerty’s words, “reinforcements are coming," for the Massaponax game.
For those who did make the trip to Woodbridge on Friday, Finnerty’s final message to his team afterward was simple.
“Adversity had nothing on us tonight.”
VHSL 6B SEMIFINALS
Patriot 13, Gar-Field 7
Patriot 0 6 7 0 -- 13
Gar-Field 0 0 7 0 -- 7
P: Jenkins 3 run (kick failed), 10:55
P: Bigbee 24 pass from Rogers (Cotter kick), 3:02
G-F: Fitzgerald 12 run (Cruz-Sorto kick), 0:00
RUSHING -- Patriot: 37-115, Jenkins 22-65, Rogers 13-47, Lacey 1-2, Albea 1-1; Gar-Field: 31-67, Fitzgerald 20-44, Kaloko 9-23, Pringle 2-0
PASSING -- Patriot: Rogers 4-9-1-35; Gar-Field: Fitzgerald 13-29-1-185
RECEIVING -- Patriot: Jenkins 1-(-8), Bigbee 1-34, Harris-Ayala 1-6, Stoney 1-3; Gar-Field: Pringle 5-53, Singleton 2-29, Young 3-95, Dancy 3-8