After finally winning their first on the field state football championship in 2015, the target was squarely on the backs of the Highland Springs Springers entering 2016. L.C. Bird, Hermitage both loomed large, as usual, the Springers getting the best of the Panthers in their season opener.
A few weeks later, a scare for the Springers when quarterback Juwan Carter exited their game against Meadowbrook, and they suffered an 8-7 upset loss to the Monarchs. But Carter returned, and things returned to normal as Highland Springs dealt with Capital District play, getting big wins against Atlee, Hanover and Lee-Davis.
But as November, and the postseason, loomed, real life interrupted. One of the team's biggest supporters, not just in 2016, but for years, Angie Johnson, the mother of wide receiver Chris Thaxton, battled her final stages of cancer. Some team members had known Johnson for almost as many years as they could remember.
Angie, amazingly, rallied the strength and courage to attend the October 28th Senior Night against Patrick Henry, walking with Chris onto the field.
Springer Nation lost Johnson just two weeks later, November 12th, a day after their opening postseason win over Deep Run. The black and gold added purple to their uniform colors. An entire team lifted their teammate, strengthening each other in their grief and time of loss.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, after a cloudy, gloomy sky dominated Kreiter Stadium during warm-ups for their 5A South Region Semifinal showdown with L.C. Bird, just as the game began, the sun suddenly appeared, brilliantly bright for a chilly November day. Springer fans knew who made that happen.
A win over the Skyhawks, then a last-minute win in the state semifinal over Norview, 28-25, setting up a rematch with Stone Bridge, this time at Hampton University, for the 5A State Championship on December 10th. The 2015 matchup was an all-Highland Springs affair, a coronation for a team, a program, who had waited for so long.
The Bulldogs remembered, and the 2016 game was much, much different. The early lead this time went to Stone Bridge, 13-0, while the Springer offense sputtered before finally starting to strike, taking their first lead at 14-13 with 3:17 left in the third quarter on a Carter pass to Isaiah Winstead.
Stone Bridge took the lead at 29-28 with less than ninety seconds left. But a short kickoff was taken back to the Stone Bridge 34 by Billy Kemp. After a false start penalty, Carter runs for six yards, then finds Thaxton for 12 and a first down with the final minute underway.
Here's how our article at HenricoCountySports.net picked up the final moments (CLICK HERE to read it).
"Then, in a play Carter said after the contest was designed to go elsewhere, he saw an advantage.
'I saw they had one on one coverage with my man, and I knew if I put it up, he'd get it,' Carter said.
'He' was Winstead, who caught the jump ball at the three-yard line. It's first and goal with 30.5 seconds left. The time had come for a final appearance from the spirit of Angie Johnson.
On a day bathed in sunshine at Hampton University, Carter went back to pass, and found a second option, a streak of purple appeared in the middle of the end zone. It was Chris Thaxton. Carter threw a fastball, and Thaxton squeezed the football like he never had before. Touchdown Highland Springs with 26 seconds left.
Springer fans experienced cheers and tears in unison as the storybook ending unfolded. But there was one chapter left to be written. Stone Bridge began their final drive at their 40, but forced to do what they aren't comfortable doing: pass the football. It took over 31 1/2 minutes for the Springers to force Stone Bridge into a corner, but when they did the seized the opportunity.
After an intentional grounding call, a pass to midfield was easily intercepted by Billy Kemp. Sheer elation engulfed Springer Nation as Bulldog fans fell to the seats in disbelief. The Springers jumped, danced, even a backflip once the clock hit 0:00."
Angie's son, Chris, scores the winning touchdown, four weeks to the day she passed away. The Springers were champions again, and no one more deserving than Thaxton.
In the months since that Saturday in Hampton, the crowds have dispersed, the cheering faded, graduation has come and gone. But we sincerely hope, for the rest of Chris' life, his heart, on good days and on tough days, will be carried by not just the events of December 10, 2016, not just securing the catch of a lifetime, but in knowing all the love that will always be there for him, for his teammates.
A love that will forever be #AngieStrong.
CLICK HERE to see the championship-clinching touchdown as it was tweeted live on @henricosports from Hampton.