It’s taken six full seasons of hard work and dedication, but the Portsmouth Warriors are finally league champions.
After a 35-24 win over the Butler County Broncos on Saturday evening at Greenup County High School, the Warriors were crowned champions of the Blue Collar Football League. The league title was the team’s first in their six-year history.
“There’s only one team that’s usually happy at the end of a season, and we’re finally those guys,” Warriors’ head coach Jamie Rice said.
Early on in the game, it seemed that the Warriors could have been headed toward another championship game disappointment. The Broncos (11-2) took a 12-7 lead in the first quarter, scoring on a 34-yard touchdown pass to Ronnie Baker and a 45-yard fumble recovery by Aaron Harris.
On Baker’s touchdown catch, Warrior corner Snook Martin seemed to have the ball intercepted, but the ball bounced off his hands and into Bakers’.
“Not really,” Rice said when asked if he felt the strange play was a bad omen. “For me, if they score on a fluke play, that’s easier to swallow than someone having a 15-play 90-yard drive against you. That can devastate you. A fluke play, you can brush it off.”
Though the Warriors scored on big plays from Michael Morton (a 10-yard touchdown catch in the first) and Luke Brown (a nine-yard touchdown run in the second), Portsmouth trailed heading into the locker room at halftime. The Broncos’ speedy receiver Paul Jones broke free for a 47-yard touchdown just before half to give Butler County an 18-14 lead.
At halftime, Rice’s speech to his team was short and sweet.
“We’re not walking off the field losing this game. Not again,” he told his team.
Rice also made some key adjustments during the break, including a shift from the Warriors’ typical shotgun offense to a three-back T-formation. Portsmouth knew that their key to a league championship would come on the ground, even if that meant taking some of its play-making wide receivers off the field.
“They said, ‘Whatever we have to do to win this game, do it.’ They cheered harder than anyone else,” Rice said.
The offensive changes made an immediate impact. The Warriors’ power rushing attack took just under five minutes to get back on the board in the third quarter. Antonio Murphy plunged in from one yard out to re-give Portsmouth the lead at 21-18.
Buoyed by the offense’s dominance, the Warrior defense came up with big stops throughout the quarter. Then, with time running low in the third, Brown broke free from nine yards out to give Portsmouth a 10-point lead.
Brown finished as Portsmouth’s rushing leader with 89 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns. But even when he wasn’t carrying the ball, he came up with a number of big blocks to help the Warriors spring for 184 rushing yards.
“Luke had a phenomenal game,” Rice said. “He really stepped up.”
The momentum was clearly on Portsmouth’s side as the teams headed toward the final quarter, and it wouldn’t take long for them to slam the door shut. On the Broncos’ next drive, the Warrior defense forced a fourth-and-one near midfield. The ensuing snap flew over the Butler County quarterback’s head, and was picked up in stride by defensive Player of the Year Snook Martin. Martin took the ball 45 yards for a Warrior touchdown to give Portsmouth a 17-point lead.
Though the Broncos scored on their following possession thanks in part to an excessive celebration penalty and a personal foul, the Warriors’ power running game melted the clock down the stretch, and Portsmouth would hang on for their first-ever BCFL Championship.
The win held special significance for a core group of Warriors who have remained with the team since the very beginning, including receiver Chris Stamper, defensive lineman Steve Lee and offensive lineman Jeremy Maxie, among many others. Also among those is Rice, who played with the team before taking over as coach three seasons ago.
“When we were 2-8, one and whatever…Jermaine (Payton) could have went and played anywhere. Justin (Lunsford) could have went and played anywhere. They were recruited all the time to go play for these teams that were winning, and they stuck with us.
“We took a lot of butt-whooping in the past. I’m really happy for those guys.”
With the win, the Warriors will receive an invitation to the Sunshine Bowl Extravaganza, a series of postseason Semi-Pro Bowl Games to take place between January 14-17 in Miami, Fl. He hopes to get his team together periodically in the coming months to keep his team fresh, and hopes to get as many current and former Warriors down south for the game.
After back-to-back seasons of championship game losses, Rice is just happy that his team finally made it over the hump.
“It’s definitely a lot better feeling, that’s for sure,” he said. GDFL
Reach Alex Hider at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter