By Randy Arrington
WOODSTOCK, Aug. 26 — The Page County Panthers had a tough season opener on Friday night as they went on the road to face a team that many think will be tops in the Bull Run District, and maybe even give Stuarts Draft or Clarke County a fight for the Region B title.
Central of Woodstock advanced to the VHSL Class 2 state semifinals a year ago for the first time in program history, and despite losing a few key players, the vast majority of the roster returned this season. The Daily News-Record recently ranked the Falcons as the fourth-best team in the Shenandoah Valley — behind Riverheads (who extended their nation-leading win streak to 51 Friday night against Waynesboro), Stuarts Draft and Clarke.
Despite a 49-15 loss to the Falcons at home last season, the Panthers matched up pretty well with Central through three quarters on Friday night under first year head coach Joe May, who was previously Page’s defensive coordinator. In fact, Central did not score its first offensive touchdown until the waining seconds of the third quarter. The Page defense only gave up three first downs in the first half.
The only touchdown through the first 35 minutes of the game came on a reverse punt return by the Falcons in which senior Luc Retrosi went 75 yards to the endzone with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. On their next possession, Central was unable to get a first down, but another reverse punt return set up great field position and a 30-yard field goal by Retrosi. The home team held a 10-0 lead at halftime.
Page only gained one first down in their first three possessions, but picked up a second first down off a 45-yard pass to senior Stephon Hawkins early in the second quarter. The drive ended four plays later on an interception. A second interception followed on the next possession.
After a lackluster first half, both offenses opened the third quarter with more efficiency. Central picked up a pair of first downs before the opening drive stalled and forced a punt. The Panthers then put together one of the their best possessions of the game, reversing the field on 13 plays before an incomplete pass on fourth down turned the ball over.
Central was then able to go 70 yards on seven plays to get its first offensive score off a run from senior Jorge Guzman Lucero with :31.6 left in the third quarter.
At this point…down 17-0, suffering several injuries, and seeming a little gassed in the fourth quarter, the Panthers would not recover. After a three-and-out by Page, Central scored on its first play — a 35-yard touchdown pass to Retrosi to go up 24-0. As Page turned the ball over on downs and then threw a third interception, Central repeated the performance two more times — scoring on one play the next two possessions, each long runs, to cap the scoring at 38-0 with more than six minutes left in the game.
In about six-and-a-half minutes of game time, the score went from 10-0 to 38-0. Central posted 21 points in the fourth quarter on just three plays that took a total of 46 seconds off the clock.
Page sustained a late, 10-play drive that took the ball over 70 yards on the ground and ended inside the 10-yard line as time expired.
While the Panthers clearly intend to air out their offense more this season following the loss of running back Blake Turpin from a season ago and the return of dual-threat senior quarterback Hayden Plum, they only completed two of a dozen pass attempts on the night and chalked up three interceptions. Page saw much more success on the ground, sustaining drives of 10 and 13 plays behind the running of seniors Gunner Strickler, Ty Davis and Plum.
Plum helped the team Friday night with both his arm and his legs, but suffered a lower leg injury during the Central game that kept him out of the fourth quarter. He was also banged up during last week’s scrimmage with Massanutten Military Academy. Back-up quarterback Hunter Creel also aired out a few in the second half of Friday night’s game in Woodstock.
The Falcons gained 211 yards on the ground Friday night — 116 yards from Nazaiah Merit in his first start at tailback.
The Falcons have now won the last six meetings with Page County, and nine of 10 overall. After winning their season- and home-opener on Friday, Central (1-0) will now host Madison County in a second consecutive Bull Run District matchup next Friday, Sept. 2.
The Panthers have advanced to the playoffs two of the last three seasons, and there’s still plenty of time to ensure another spot in the Region B bracket. Page County (0-1) will travel to Nelson County next Friday for what is anticipated to be an easier non-district challenge on the road.
For full schedules, rosters and standings — check out the Bull Run District website.