BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Fred Simon kept his team in the locker room for near the entirety of halftime during Friday’s Class AA semifinal against Bridgeport.
The veteran Bluefield coach had a simple message.
“We knew we had to get a little tougher becuase they were playing tough,” Simon said. “It’s either get tough or get beat.”
Over the final two quarters, Simon’s team proved they were plenty tough enough.
The Class AA No. 2 Beavers scored a touchdown 20 seconds into the second half to create separation from the No. 3 Indians and Bluefield never looked back en route to a 35-14 victory at Mitchell Stadium.
With the win, the Beavers (12-1) will play in Friday’s Class AA state championship game Friday at Wheeling Island Stadium. Bluefield, the defending AA champion, will learn its opponent Saturday when No. 1 Fairmont Senior faces No. 12 Weir.
“With these young kids, a little over three hours and then you have to come down here and face that, it’s tough,” Bridgeport coach John Cole said. “That’s a good football team and this is a hell of a football program. They have the speed, they have the strength and they only lost five from last year.
“They were a little bit too strong and a little bit too quick for us, but our kids, I wouldn’t trade them for anyone else. They were a joy.”
Leading 14-7 at the break, Bluefield took over to start the third quarter at its 41-yard line. A 51-yard run by Arnold Martin moved the Beavers inside the Bridgeport 10-yard line, and quarterback Chandler Cooper ran up the middle for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Beavers their first two possession lead of the contest.
Faced with a 14-point deficit, the Indians (11-2) managed to get a couple of first downs on their enusing series, but quarterback Devin Vandergrift was sacked by Malcolm Miller for a 9-yard loss on third down. The Indians were set to punt, but Bluefield’s Sean Martin came off the edge and blocked it, allowing the Beavers took take over at the Tribe 37.
“He’s strong and he’s tall. He has talent and he’s a tough kid,” Simon said of Martin. “We’re glad to have him and he gives it everything he’s got.”
A 10-yard run by Cooper on fourth-and-2 moved the ball into the red zone, and Cooper found more magic on fourth down when he connected with Jahiem House for a 14-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-5 with 2:51 left in the third quarter. Kaulin Parris made his fourth of five point-after kicks to extend the Bluefield lead to 28-7.
The Indians put together a 12 play drive that covered 78 yards and scored their second and final touchdown of the contest on Jake Bowen’s 2-yard run with 8:18 remaining. Evan Ogden’s second PAT brought Bridgeport to within 28-14 with 8:18 remaining.
Martin recovered the Tribe’s ensuing onside kick attempt, and Bluefield managed one first down before turning it over on downs at the Indians’ 29 with 4:25 to play.
Needing to score quickly, the Indians went to the air on the fourth play of their drive, but Vandergrift was intercepted by Isaiah Johnson, who returned it 53 yards for a touchdown with 3:23 remaining.
“I was playing press coverage the whole game and I decided to play off. I saw that the (receiver) came off pretty fast and ran a quick out,” Johnson said. “I broke on the out and got the pick and saw my blockers leading me. He had to release the ball because the line got good pressure.”
The Beavers got off to a fast start as Martin helped force a three-and-out on Bridgeport’s opening series, with the Indians losing 4 yards on three plays. Bluefield then marched 65 yards in eight plays, with Martin reaching the end zone on a 22-yard run at the 6:21 mark of the opening quarter.
A 55-yard pass from Vandergrift to D’Andre Holloway helped pull the Indians even as it led to Bowen’s 5-yard touchdown run just 1:40 after the Beavers had taken the lead.
The Beavers answered quickly, however, and one play after a 28-yard run by J.J. Davis, they scored on Jamere ‘Juice’ Edwards’ 51-yard run to make it 14-7 with 3:31 on the first quarter clock.
Bridgeport got into the red zone on its next series, but Vandergrift was intercepted by Ronnell Blevins on a fourth-and-10 play from the Bluefield 16.
Each team punted twice over the remainder of the first half and the Beavers went to the break with a 14-7 lead.
“We hit the (55-yard) pass and then we took it to them a little bit and scored there and played real good defense for the most part,” Cole said. “We just couldn’t get it moving on offense.”
Bluefield beat Bridgeport 37-14 in a semifinal a season ago.