VIRGINIA BEACH — Down at halftime, having surrendered a last-play touchdown. Frustrated early in the third quarter, having squandered a long kickoff return. Given new life after an Atlantic Shores fumble, and a two-play touchdown drive to a two-point deficit.
Back to two points after a 67-yard, eight-play touchdown drive in which Kamden Johnson carried seven times, for all but the last yard.
With various opportunities, North Cross had the Seahawks right where it wanted them.
“I had told them we would win this game in the fourth quarter,” said North Cross coach Stephen Alexander.
And then … nothing.
The Raiders surrendered final-quarter touchdowns by Kai Hodge and Damien Mazil in a 36-26 loss in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II championship game Friday at the Sportsplex.
“We just didn’t perform,” acknowledged North Cross quarterback Connor Lange. “We didn’t stop them, didn’t score.”
The loss ended a two-year reign atop the division for North Cross, which won the state championship in 2019. Due to COVID, no title was contested in 2020.
For all of the scoreboard arithmetic, the game turned on a pair of two-point plays:
A safety, awarded in the first quarter when Lange was determined to have grounded the football in the end zone while trying to pass out of it under pressure. That gave Atlantic Shores a 9-7 lead, which it never lost.
And Johnson’s two-point try in the fourth was jammed up by the Seahawks’ defense, which was clearly awaiting just that play. “We made a mistake on the two-point play,” Alexander said. “We ran to the wrong hole.”
That was probably because Atlantic Shores, ahead 22-20, had everybody but the school principal within 2 yards of the football, just waiting for Johnson to come.
“They were two big plays, no doubt about it,” Alexander said.
Big, because like a specter, the plays lingered over North Cross’ decisions for much of the night.
Atlantic Shores took an early lead when Mazil scored on a keeper with only 2:52 played. North Cross matched it when Johnson was able to walk in through a wide hole in the middle.
The half turned on the intentional grounding safety, which gave when Atlantic Shores a 9-7 lead.
That was stretched to 16-7 on the final play of the second quarter when Mazil found Ameer Ali alone in the middle of the end zone with a 2-yard touchdown pass.
When Kwalei Carter returned the second-half kickoff 56 yards to the Atlantic Shores 22, momentum appeared fickle. When Lange threw a fourth-down interception to end the threat, order seemed restored.
But Mazil’s fumble two plays later put North Cross back in business on the Seahawk 17. Johnson took care of those yards in two plays to make it 16-14.
Still, the effect of that safety lingered.
Mazil’s 20-yard touchdown was matched when Johnson ran over and through defenders on a touchdown drive. But when he was stopped on the two-pointer, North Cross still trailed 22-20.
Fourth-quarter touchdowns by Hodge and Mazil put things out of reach and gave Atlantic Shores its first state title since 2008.
Seahawks coach Wayne Lance acknowledged worrying when North Cross pulled within two points twice in the second half. “But you need to trust the guys,” he said. “We trusted them.”
They particularly trusted Hodge and Mazil, who matriculated to Atlantic Shores from Virginia Beach public high schools during last year’s COVID outbreak.
“It’s been a journey,” said Mazil, who has committed to Campbell University, an FBS school. “This is the reward.”
He ran 16 times for 115 yards and three touchdowns and completed 7 of 15 passes for 143 yards. Hodge ran 29 times for 180 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson ran 21 times for 135 yards and turned his attention to the future.
“We have to get back to the gym and get ready to win for next season,” the sophomore said.
Alexander told his players that a championship game is a “binary experience, you win or you lose,” and he offered the perspective of a long season gleaned from years at North Cross. He has taken teams to the state championship game seven times, winning two.