GATE CITY — Tyler Parks packs a mighty wallop for a 5-foot-7, 176-pound athlete.
The Gate City senior made sure Saturday that he’ll get to play in the state championship football game, leading the Blue Devils to a 21-14 victory over George Wythe in the VHSL Group A, Division 2 semifinals.
Parks rushed 44 times for 212 yards, scored two touchdowns and made a diving pass interception at the Gate City 21-yard line with 1:11 remaining.
It was Parks right, Parks left, Parks up the middle.
“We’ve sort of hung our hat on him in the last four or five games,’’ Gate City coach Nick Colobro said of Parks. “He’s our bread-and-butter man. Just like all the other kids, he works hard.’’
Parks’ ironman performance and a punishing defense — spearheaded by ends Owen Franklin, Eric Hutchins and Tyler Tiller — punched Gate City’s ticket to the finals.
The Blue Devils (10-3) will take on top-ranked Gretna (13-0) for the state title at 4:30 p.m. next Saturday in Salem. Gretna defeated King William 42-0.
The state championship was hardly the destination observers expected for this youthful Gate City team after a slow start.
“A lot of people doubted us,’’ Parks said following Gate City’s fifth straight win. “Every week, we’ve been outsized but this team has a lot of heart.’’
After playing hard-nosed defense and carrying the ball so many times in the 48-minute skirmish, Parks was physically drained.
“I am pretty tired,’’ he said, “but it was gut-check time today.’’
Parks explained how he managed to ward off fatigue and keep going. “I tried to take breaks going back to the huddle after each carry. I actually walked a few times. It gave me a chance to catch my breath.’’
Last season’s 4-6 record didn’t sit well with the Devils. Parks missed the final four games because of a pulled hamstring.
“I thank God every day that I’ve stayed healthy this year,’’ he said. “I’d love to have that state championship. It’s been my dream since I was a little boy.’’
Gate City scored on its first possession, marching 51 yards. Parks stepped in from the 5.
He made it 14-0 in the second quarter with a 2-yard plunge, capping Gate City’s 62-yard drive.
George Wythe’s ever-dangerous quarterback, Jacob Sharitz, pitched a 43-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith before halftime.
Gate City received the second- half kickoff and moved goalward again, covering 71 yards with 12 plays that consumed more than six minutes.
The key play was a 25-yard pass from Tihlee Anderson to Hutchins, with Gate City facing a fourth-and-9 situation at the Maroons’ 28-yard line. Anderson sneaked the final yard, restoring the Big Blue’s two-TD margin.
George Wythe (11-2) wasn’t through, however. The Maroons put together a 72-yard drive.
Sharitz hit Seth White with a 32-yard pass, tossed a 14-yarder to Smith and threw another to Robert Yonce for 7 yards. Halfback Larry McCoy sprinted the final 9 yards for the score.
The Blue Devils’ 21-14 lead was threatened in the late going every time Sharitz dropped back to throw.
Gate City’s Owen Franklin and Antah Johnson put their helmets on Sharitz to share a drive-halting sack at the Devils’ 17 with 2:02 left to play, but Gate City’s offense was backed up and unable to move. Parks, filling in for injured punter Dustin Jones, got off a 45-yard kick to provide needed field position.
Sharitz uncorked two incomplete passes. He threw a third one and Parks leaped high for his only interception of the season, allowing the Devils to run out the clock.
“The momentum was changing hands,’’ Parks said. “I wanted to make sure we got out of here without an overtime. I’ve got the worst hands on the team. I knew if I got the ball, the game would be over.’’
Colobro regarded this play worthy of a highlight film.
“It was a great interception,’’ he said.
George Wythe was held to a minus-16 yards rushing by Gate City’s belligerent defense. The Devils were credited with seven sacks — two each by Franklin and Hutchins.
Colobro knew Sharitz could not be left alone in the pocket very long.
“We’ve got pretty good quickness at the defensive ends,’’ he said.
Both Franklin and Hutchins felt, that with George Wythe’s running game silenced, they’d have to pressure Sharitz on every down.
The defensive plan was to bottle up the dangerous QB.
“We watched a game film and realized we had to have an aggressive mind-set,’’ Franklin said.
“We did a good job of keeping him contained,’’ Hutchins said. “We have fire under us right now.’’
Sharitz managed to complete 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards. But with negative rushing yardage, George Wythe finished with just 171 while Gate City totaled 308.
Gate City’s offensive line — Jesse Broadwater, Ryan Pope, Brad Brown, Seth Musick, Quinton Jones, Ty Frazier and Hutchins — put some forceful blocks on George Wythe’s front seven.
“Their defensive line was probably the best we’ve faced all year,’’ said Frazier, a 6-3, 270-pound tackle. “We gave it everything we had blocking them.’’
Coming in, George Wythe coach Donnie Pruitt emphasized passing.
“We knew we’d have trouble running the ball,’’ Pruitt noted. “That’s why we threw nearly 30 passes.’’