Blue Devils quarterback Tihlee Anderson struggles for yardage against the Gretna defense. Ned Jilton II photo.
SALEM, Va. — A sign hanging in front of the Gate City seating section asked “Gretna Who?”
That question turned into a battle cry for the Hawks.
Gretna answered by collecting a state championship at the Blue Devils’ expense, winning the VHSL Group A, Division 2 state title game 52-0 at the Salem City Stadium on Saturday.
Gate City (10-4) was its own worst enemy, committing eight turnovers.
“We’ve played really good this year and tonight was just one of those nights,” Blue Devils coach Nick Colobro said. “I think we had more turnovers tonight than we’ve had all year combined.”
The Hawks (14-0) took advantage of those mistakes, but made plenty of plays on their own. Gretna scored eight touchdowns, including three on consecutive first-half possessions to take control of the game.
With every big play Gretna made as time ticked off in the second half, Hawks fans shouted “Gretna Who” back at the Gate City section, only this time as a declaration rather than a question.
“I don’t know about signs or crowds. I try to get mine not to listen to it,” Gretna coach Chris Thurman said. “Look, Gate City has great support. I knew that when we got here. Take nothing away from their crowd. That’s a great crowd.
“I don’t know what our fans want to holler at their fans. I guess that’s just what happens.”
Gretna quarterback Nicholas Miller certainly took notice of the sign.
“We seen that when we first got on the field,” Miller said. “It was like a spark to get us going.”
Did it ever. Gretna got the ball first and scored in just four plays, with Miller ripping off a 59-yard touchdown run. The Hawks missed the extra point.
On the next play from scrimmage, a 30-yard jaunt by Gate City counterpart Tihlee Anderson put the Blue Devils in business. They advanced to the Gretna 33 yard line before fumbling away the ball — the first of five Gate City fumbles. The Devils lost all five.
“We had a good drive going, we’re down 6-0, we’re moving the ball, boom,” Colobro said. “That’s football, guys.”
Gate City played its best defense of the game on the next possession, blitzing Gretna into a fourth-and-15, before a low snap sent punter Jayme Barksdale careening backward another 10 yards while pursued by a swarm of Blue Devils.
That gave Gate City a short field at Gretna’s 28, but the ensuing drive lasted only three plays before another fumble.
“They ran their offense, they ran what defense we were ready for, we just turned the dadjim ball over,” Colobro said.
After that, it was all Gretna. The Hawks scored touchdowns on three successive possessions. Bennett tallied touchdown runs of 8 and 28 yards, followed by Miller’s 3-yard jaunt with 3:05 left in the second quarter. Miller somersaulted into the end zone, and that flip wouldn’t be the last time Gretna showboated en route to the title.
At the tail end of a 97-yard interception return by Bennett that closed the scoring, the Hawks senior extended his arm and held out the ball behind him as he crossed the goal line.
Gretna committed 14 penalties for 160 yards during the game, including three personal fouls, a personal-foul facemask and an illegal block.
Missed and broken tackles characterized a humbling day for the Gate City defense.
Miller ran for 159 yards, tacking on a 20-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and completed 8 of 16 passes for 130 yards and a 54-yard TD to Stephon Jennings. Tyon Bennett ran for 132 yards and three scores of his own, in addition to the pick six.
Gretna finished with 421 yards of offense, holding Gate City to 171. Stalwart running back Tyler Parks led the Devils with 64 yards on the ground while Anderson rushed for 54, and went 4-for-8 passing with three interceptions.
“I take full blame for it. We just can’t have turnovers,” Anderson said.
Gate City was looking for its third state title under Colobro. Nevertheless, the Blue Devils made an improbable run to this stage after finishing second in the Clinch Mountain District.
“We’re a family. Good or bad, we’re a family,” Parks said. “I love them to death and I’m proud of them.”
“With this young bunch especially, we’ve had a great year,” Colobro added. “We came out of nowhere, we weren’t even in anybody’s dreams of being in the district race and being in the regional hunt and here we are tonight.
“It’s bittersweet, no doubt about it. Nobody likes to get beat the way we did tonight but that’s part of it. If this is the worst thing that ever happens to us, we’ll be lucky people.”