J.I. Burton falls short in state championship game

George Thwaites • Dec 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

SALEM, Va. — From quarterback to running back to wide receiver, Altavista’s Johnny Wimbish played whatever offensive role coach Mike Scharnus assigned him this season.

On Saturday, he added another one to his resumé: state champion playmaker.

Wimbish rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns while passing for 67 yards and a score and the Colonels eclipsed J.I. Burton 27-7 in the VHSL Group A, Division 1 state championship football game at Salem City Stadium.

The victory marked the first state football championship for Altavista (13-1) in its first title game appearance. The Raiders (11-3) collected their fifth state runner-up trophy under head coach Jimbo Adams.

“We’re back on the state stage and it’s where we aspire to be. We have our seniors to thank for that,” said Adams, who led the Raiders to the state finals in 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2006. He was on the coaching staff with John Kuczko in the Raiders’ 1990 state championship game appearance.

“I wish (our seniors) well. We’ve learned some hard lessons along the way and it’s been fun. I’ll cherish my memories with them forever.”

Much pregame speculation was lent to the health of the two finalists’ respective star players. Altavista linebacker Chris Clark, the Region B defensive player of the year, injured his foot in the first half of last week’s 14-6 semifinal win over West Point and was reported as questionable for Saturday. J.I. Burton running back Martinez Miles — Region D’s top running back prospect — had his side badly bruised in last week’s 2-0 win over Holston. His playing status was also in doubt.

Both luminous athletes played in pain Saturday despite missing practice all week. Both had their share of impressive plays.

But it was Wimbish who stole the show.

“I think Johnny obviously made a difference for us offensively. He did some things that allowed us to make some big plays,” said Scharnus, who reached the summit after taking the Colonels through regular-season finishes of 2-7 and 5-5.

Wimbish made it plain that he was no ordinary utility guy shortly after Burton tied the game at 7 on Jansen Bates’ 2-yard scoring sneak with 11:54 left in the second quarter.

Big defensive plays by Alex Mazza, Markus Ward and Miles dismantled Altavista’s subsequent possession, but the Raiders’ chance for a quick go-ahead evaporated one snap after receiving the punt when Bates’ fumble was recovered by Tavonne Payne.

Burton’s defense appeared to be on its way to erasing the mistake, finally slowing Altavista to fourth-and-long at the Raiders’ 31-yard line. Wimbish, who contributed a 24-yard pass completion and 17-yard scramble to the Colonels’ first-quarter scoring drive, scrambled under heavy pressure, eluded the pursuit and let it rip on a desperation pass play.

Receiver Lee Miller, who had gotten behind three Burton defenders, made the leaping catch in the end zone for the touchdown.

“I saw the dude coming down, he kind of blitzed real hard. I just turned out to the left and threw it, just hoping that receiver was going to catch it,” Wimbish said. “When I saw him catch it, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say or what to do.”

Miller’s athleticism probably contributed as much to that play as Wimbish’s dazzling elusiveness. But even though Wimbish gave due praise to his offensive linemen, blocking was only partly responsible for other two big plays that did in the Raiders.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior made multiple Burton tacklers miss en route to his 39-yard scoring run 1:23 before halftime. He did likewise in his 39-yard touchdown run that opened the fourth quarter.

“A heck of a football player,” Adams said. “They had seven or eight athletes. I knew coming in what they were. They were who we thought they were. We make a play here or there, maybe we have a chance. But the way the game played out, we got behind the 8-ball and they’re very sound and very fast on defense.”

Exceptionally sound, fast and single-minded. In the first quarter quarterback Tanner Crowder tantalized Raiders fans with his 62-yard pass to Timmy Goins to put Burton inside the Altavista 5. Led by Miller at linebacker, the Colonels’ defense stole the anticipated elation with a goal-line stand.

Burton’s offense was hampered by five turnovers, losing four of six fumbles. While at least a couple of questionable exchanges contributed, Altavista’s ball-stripping technique, demonstrated superbly by the hobbled Clark on more than one occasion, had an awful lot to do with it.

The pass coverage was also excellent. Payne and Mike Robinson successively broke up two promising Crowder pass attempts late in the third quarter. Hunter Shellhorse, who scored Altavista’s first touchdown on a 9-yard run in the first quarter, picked off a Bates pass attempt to end Burton’s first possession of the fourth quarter — and all hopes for a comeback.

Miles had some pulse-pounding runs, including a 36-yard run in the fourth quarter. But Altavista pursuers simply proved too fast and too numerous for the Raiders’ 2,000-yard rusher to carry the day one last time.

“I came out here with my team and I tried to play the best I could,” said Miles, who netted 56 yards on 15 carries. “I felt like I was a step slow, but they had some fast kids on that team. I did what I had to do, but I came up short.

“They’re a pretty good football team, but we didn’t play our best today. They had a good defense and Clark was a heck of a football player on defense. But when you can’t get them blocked sometimes, it hurts.”

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