With St. Christopher’s bottled up on their one-yard line, down by four points and less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bishop Ireton looked poised to win the opening round of the state playoffs Saturday.
Up until that point, the 8-2 squads had traded touchdowns with ease in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I game. Their respective defenses had struggled — and failed — to keep pace with the Saints’ running game and the Cardinals’ pass attack.
Trailing seconds before the two-minute warning, Cardinals junior quarterback P.J. Zingler hit senior tight end Matt McShea to make it 34-31. When Ireton’s overworked defense took the field for the final time, they seemed ready to send the Cardinals to the VISAA state championship game.
Everything — field position, the Saints’ lack of timeouts and the ticking clock — looked to be in Ireton’s favor. They forced quarterback Giles Thompson to throw an ill-fated pass into triple coverage and then deftly stopped the Saints’ run game in its tracks. On third down, they sacked Thompson on the one-yard line, leaving the Saints with a final, desperate attempt to take the lead.
Thompson and company did not disappoint.
The sophomore quarterback hit receiver Blair Farinholt on a post route from the end zone. The senior wide out cut rapidly across the field, and just as Cardinals defenders converged on him, Farinholt pitched the ball to teammate Cole Carns, screeching by from the opposite direction.
The hook-and-ladder play paid off in spades. Ireton’s defense, out of place, couldn’t adjust. Carns roared down the field to put the Saints back in the lead with less than a minute left in the game.
It put Zingler in a position most of his peers can only enviously imagine: 51 seconds to move the ball 80 yards down the field with a playoff game — their first since 2007 — on the line.
Though tension gripped the home crowd watching from the bleachers abutting Fannon Field, Zingler wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“People dream about having a chance like that, being the quarterback and coming back from behind,” he said. “I’m the quarterback. I want to have the ball. There’s no pressure.”
After two failed pass attempts, a scrambling Zingler found wide receiver Malcolm Westbrook, who broke free for a 55-yard pickup. A blatant facemask penalty two plays later — the game clock down to 16 seconds — put the Cardinals even closer to the end zone.
But under pressure and under the gun, the Cardinals, after putting up 34 points, fell short of a touchdown. Zingler’s last-ditch effort to hit Westbrook on the sidelines went wide and the Saints streamed onto the field, their arms raised in celebration for their 38-34 win. After an early deficit, they had earned the right to challenge Christian Liberty Academy in the VISAA DI state championship game.
An emotional Zingler took a philosophical perspective of the loss, including his doomed final drive against the Richmond Saints.
“This experience, there is nothing like this [experience],” he said. “Some people never get this chance.”
The upset loss caps a season that saw the Cardinals rebound from a 4-6 2010 campaign. Despite leaving the field with their playoff run cut short, coach Tony Verducci described the season as a success. No member of the team outside of the coaching staff had participated in a playoff game before.
The trick is to carry that momentum into next year.
“I think the big thing is to take some time to celebrate this team, the contributions of our seniors,” he said. “[But] I told the juniors and sophomores, the one thing we haven’t seen is a [playoff run] in back-to-back years.”