2014-12-03 / Sports

Title Bound?

Bird advances, seeks back-to-back titles
By Jim McConnell

L.C. Bird's J.B. Wright runs for a first down during the Skyhawks' victory over Hermitage last Friday. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer L.C. Bird's J.B. Wright runs for a first down during the Skyhawks' victory over Hermitage last Friday. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer The L.C. Bird High football team won its first four games this season – extending its string of consecutive victories to 33 – before it fell to Lake Taylor in early October.

The Skyhawks are still working on another impressive streak.

Heading into Saturday’s 5A South Region final against Salem of Virginia Beach, Bird has won its last 12 playoff games.

Bird (11-2) needs two more victories for its third consecutive state championship, which would put it in exclusive company; only six schools in the 101- year history of the Virginia High School League have won back-to-back-to-back titles.

“Whatever we have to do to survive and advance to the next week, that’s all we care about,” Bird coach David Bedwell said during an interview Sunday.

The Skyhawks’ current postseason run includes a few dominant performances like last Friday’s 28-7 rout of Hermitage, in which Bird scored the first 20 points and held the host Panthers without a first down until late in the third quarter.

But there also have been several narrow escapes – most recently, Bird’s Nov. 21 secondround game against Highland Springs, when the Skyhawks needed a 32-yard field goal from sophomore Keaton Riley with 1:11 remaining to knock off the top-seeded Springers 25-23.

Six of Bird’s 12 consecutive playoff victories have come by seven points or less. The Skyhawks trailed in the fourth quarter in four of those six games, including last year’s 5A state final against Briar Woods.

And yet each time, with their season on the line, they’ve found a way to get the job done.

“No matter who we’re playing, when they step on the field our kids always expect to win,” Bird defensive coordinator Tony Nicely said.

Bird’s program long has been known for its bruising, blue-collar style. It’s not pretty and it’s not for the faint of heart.

While Bird has produced a handful of Division I college players and even two former NFL running backs, the vast majority of its players are typical teenagers whose best days on the gridiron take place in high school.

But Bedwell says that mental toughness – the ability to perform at your best when the pressure is greatest – is the true essence of Skyhawk football.

“I think every team has physically tough kids. If you’re willing to put on a helmet and play football, you’re physically tough. What separates really tough people is their mindset,” he added.

“When things get tough, our kids like it. That’s when you find out who your real competitors are.”

Sports psychologists have identified a self-fulfilling aspect in many perennially successful teams. The more they win the biggest games, the more players and coaches become convinced they’ll do whatever is necessary to win in the future.

It doesn’t guarantee success, of course, but that high level of trust minimizes panic in times of stress and enables players to focus on executing their assigned duties.

“I believe confidence is everything,” Bird senior offensive lineman Andre Davis said after last Friday’s game. “When we get to this point, we’ve been here before and we don’t act like it’s anything new or different. We just try to get better every week.”

Ironically, Bird’s current playoff run nearly ended before it began.

In the opening round of the 2012 playoffs, Hermitage led Bird 20-10 with a little more than seven minutes left in the game. The Panthers had the ball and needed only to run out the clock to secure the victory, but the Skyhawks rallied for two late touchdowns and haven’t looked back since.

This weekend’s game is a rematch of the 2013 5A South final, a defensive battle in which Bird ultimately prevailed 7-3.

That game was played in Chesterfield. Freezing precipitation fell throughout, turning Bird’s field into a soggy mess and limiting the impact of star running back Earl Hughes. The Skyhawks also hurt themselves with 21 penalties for 185 yards.

Leading 3-0 with seven minutes left, Salem attempted a 35-yard field goal. Bird’s Rashard Ashby blocked the kick and Hughes later scored the game’s lone touchdown on a 2-yard run, sending the Skyhawks back to the state final.

“In every football game, if the teams are evenly matched, there are six or seven plays that determine the outcome,” Bedwell said. “We tell our players that the other team is going to make some plays. You can’t dwell on it. You have to learn from it and move on.”

To reach a third consecutive state championship game, the Skyhawks will have to win Saturday in Virginia Beach. While Bird finished the regular season with a higher VHSL power rating, Salem was declared host by virtue of a higher seeding in its half of the 5A South bracket.

Hitting the road is nothing new for Bird, which has played seven of its 12 playoff games away from home the past three seasons.

“If they call us and say, ‘Be there at 7:30 in the morning and be ready to play in the parking lot,’” Bedwell added, “that’s what we’ll do.”

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