Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Fans know Eastern Montgomery's Mustangs are a team for the ages

The game


Star of the game

EastMont quarterback Shawn Christian set two state Group A championship game records by passing for 429 yards and five touchdowns.

Key stat

Riverheads rushed for a Group A playoff record 560 yards..

It was over when...

The Gladiators converted a fourth-and-7 from the EastMont 28 with quarterback Lance Diehl running 12 yards to the Mustangs' 16 on his only carry of the game. That set up a 1-yard TD plunge by running back Jordan Jack that put Riverheads up 56-35 with 6:15 left.

Quote: EastMont coach Mark Poston

They just could not stop us, but they stopped us enough to win, so my hat's off to them.

By the numbers



The VHSL scoring record by two teams in a state final.


The combined total offense of the two teams.



Receiving yardage by Eastern Montgomery's Brad Wooten on 13 catches.


Riverheads first downs.


Passes thrown by Riverheads


Punts by Riverheads.

-- Ray Cox

They huddled on the hill that overlooks the field house at Salem Stadium -- Eastern Montgomery fans, hundreds of them, waiting for one last glimpse of the team that had taken them on a ride like they'd never seen.

Brittany Bandy was there. She's 17, a junior at EastMont. She doesn't have a relative on the team, but she knows every one of the players. Shawn Christian, the brilliant Mustangs quarterback, is someone she can go to whenever she needs something. There's no big-timing in her community, she says.

"Our school's such a small school, you can just talk to anybody about anything," she said. "They all know we're there for them, no matter what."

And for two and a half hours, they'd cheered and shouted and hoped. Now, though, the scene on the hill was somber. The scoreboard over the field house read: Riverheads 63, Eastern Montgomery 49.

And as Bandy awaited her friends, she acknowledged what everyone here was thinking -- both inside the locker room and out of it.

"This was our one big shot," she said

What makes a state championship game important? Is it trophies? Rings? Wide-scale media exposure? The chance to have your picture taken and put in next year's VHSL program? An opportunity to do something your school has never done before?

Maybe. But for EastMont, a school with a microscopic enrollment of 326, it was something else. This wasn't just an unprecedented trip to the state title game.

Most likely, it's also the last.

"I don't ever doubt the other players on this team that weren't seniors," Christian said, after having a hand in all seven Mustangs touchdowns. "But I mean, this was a really good senior class. To me, it was our only chance. To come up short, it really hurts. It's heartbreaking."

Of course, no 13-year-old gridder in Shawsville or Elliston is going to throw up his hands and say he's got no state title shot down the road. The new guys still will lift weights, practice hard, try to get back here. As well they should.

But the stinging reality of playing for one of the smallest schools in the state is that there are only so many opportunities. You can carry that bottle into the thunderstorm all you want; catching those bolts is the hard part.

And the Mustangs caught them this year. Seventeen talented seniors, led by a 6-foot-3 quarterback who can fling a 30-yard strike off his back foot.

Troy Fisher, father of EastMont running back/defensive lineman Justin Fisher, started coaching these seniors when they were 6 or 7 years old, playing in the pee-wee leagues.

"Even back then, I knew they had it in them," he said, as he stood on the hill. "There was no doubt in my mind. They've got the talent; all of 'em."

He sighed.

"Wasn't meant to be, I reckon."

The Mustangs didn't believe that, though. Until the final seconds, they fought. Christian -- who plays both ways, like a lot of small-school guys -- kept waving his arms to hype the crowd, and the fans responded. Even down two touchdowns with three minutes left, coach Mark Poston kept moving his hands like he was trying to pull a parachute ripcord.

"Gotta have a strip, guys!" he shouted. "Gotta have a strip!"

No strip came. No parachute opened

Later, in the locker room, Poston tackled the question that was on everyone's mind: Was this EastMont's only shot?

"Depends on how hard the kids are willing to work," he said. "What made this group special is their work ethic is unbelievable. I mean, five days a week in the weight room conditioning. We started last December 15. What is today, the 11th? We worked five days a week offseason and six days a week during the season."

He looked around at his veteran players, many of whom still lingered at their lockers.

"That's why these kids don't want to leave," he said. "I mean, they gave everything. They gave everything. That's what makes it hurt so bad."

It's also what made the 13 wins feel so good. It's what had the EastMont halls decked with signs, the stores in town covered in maroon, the fans showing up en masse -- and sticking around long after it was over.

"Pretty much all of Shawsville," Bandy said with a smile. "Even if they've never been to a football game before, they came this year."

They know a once-in-a-lifetime team when they see it.

State title or not, they know.

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