EMORY, Va. – Zach Brown was not going to miss this.
Despite being hobbled by nagging injuries in both his ankles, Patrick Henry High School’s star running back didn’t entertain the thought of possibly passing up the opportunity to carry the football in Saturday’s VHSL Region 1D championship game against J.I. Burton.
“This was a pretty big deal with school history on the line,” Brown said. “I was going to take whatever pain I was feeling and push through things.”
Brown responded by scoring two touchdowns as a relentless rushing attack and dominant defense propelled PH to a 24-0 victory over Burton at Emory & Henry College’s Fred Selfe Stadium.
It was the first regional title in program history for Patrick Henry (13-0), which will play its first-ever state semifinal game on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 3 p.m. against the Galax Maroon Tide (11-1) at E&H.
PH had finished as regional runner-up in 1990, 1997 and 2018, but got the breakthrough win on Saturday as many players from the program’s past celebrated with those of the present following the contest.
The steady rain that fell throughout the game didn’t hamper the Rebels as they set the tone from the start by opening the game with a time-consuming 13-play, 60-yard drive that was capped by Brown’s 6-yard touchdown run with 5:32 left in the first quarter.
“We were confident coming in,” said PH senior Cody Smith. “The weather was awful, but we persevered through it and got the job done.”
The Rebels scored on their first three possessions as Brown tacked on a 22-yard scoring scamper with 9:45 remaining in the second quarter and quarterback Dakota Rector reached the end zone on a 1-yard keeper with 4:02 left in the first half.
Brown (14 carries, 81 yards), Smith (14 carries, 48 yards) and Cody Pruitt (seven carries, 47 yards) were methodical in chewing up the yards behind a strong offensive line.
“All their running backs run hard and they don’t go down on first contact,” said J.I. Burton coach Jacob Caudill. “We’ve got to do a better job at tackling.”
The defense did the rest for Patrick Henry as J.I. Burton (10-3) was limited to 110 yards of total offense and just six first downs.
“We came out and busted them in the mouth and just swarmed to the ball,” said Patrick Henry’s Isaac Chaffin, who intercepted a pass by J.I. Burton QB Jaymen Buchanan right before halftime. “When it came down to it, our defense got it done. We always keep our heads up and don’t back down.”
Chaffin was part of a hard-hitting defense that also includes the likes of Chase Brown, Caleb Walk, Bobby Cline and Ean Rhea.
“The thing about that defense is eight of those guys are underclassmen,” said Patrick Henry coach Mark Palmer. “[Defensive coordinator Billy Testerman] keeps it simple, he lets them play and they make plays. I’m real proud of those guys.”
Chaffin is a senior who didn’t play the last two years, but the 5-foot-9, 165-pounder has been a standout on that side of the ball in 2019.
“The reason why he’s so successful is he gives 100 percent on every play and does what the coaches ask him to do,” Palmer said. “When you do those two things, I think you are a very good football player and he is.”
Najee Steele’s 51 rushing yards was among the few highlights for the Raiders.
“Their defense gets after it,” Caudill said. “The Rhea kid is really good, [Pruitt] is really good. Those inside backers flow to the ball and those linemen are hard to block.”
Caudill, who took over as head coach on an interim basis in July, kept the standards high at tradition-rich J.I. Burton this fall.
“A 10-win season’s always a good season,” Caudill said. “We wanted to keep it rolling, but we just got outmanned a little bit today. I’m proud of the team and the senior leadership we had.”
Meanwhile, Brown’s day ended prematurely as he limped off the field with 4:18 remaining in the third quarter after tweaking his injuries again.
“Zach Brown is a special young man,” Palmer said. “Today his talents were on display. Unfortunately, he has some ankle issues and he’ll get it reevaluated and looked at this week. I hope for his sake he gets a shot to play [in the semifinals]. He’s had a great four years, but it’s been injury-riddled.”
Patrick Henry will have to be at the top of its game next week as the Rebels play a game in the month of December for the first time since the school opened in the fall of 1959. Their opponent, Galax, is used to being in such contests and won the state championship in 2015.
“That’s going to be our biggest challenge to date,” Palmer said. “I know [Galax] Coach [Mark] Dixon well. He’s a great coach, they’ve got great athletes and they’ve got great linemen. At this point of the year, that’s why you’re here. We’re going to be playing on this field and we’re going to give it our best shot.”
As for Saturday, the Rebels were soaking up that history-making win.
“I knew today was going to be a good day,” Brown said.
J.I. Burton 0 0 0 0—0
Patrick Henry 8 16 0 0—24
PH – Z. Brown 6 run (C. Smith run)
PH – Z. Brown 22 run (C. Smith run)
PH – Rector 1 run (C. Smith run)
First Downs: JIB 6, PH 14; Rushes-Yards: JIB 30-101, PH 42-183; Passing Yards: JIB 9, PH 23; Comp.-Att.-Int.: JIB 2-7-1, PH 2-3-1; Fumbles-Lost: JIB 1-0, PH 2-1; Penalties-Yards: JIB 4-40, PH 4-40; Punts-Average: JIB 3-18.3, PH 0-0.