SALEM – It was an emotional roller-coaster ride that rivaled any you’d find in a theme park.
Frustration. Hope. Disappointment.
The exhilaration, and … agony.
And mostly that was the fourth quarter. Riverheads went down to a wild finish in Saturday’s Group 1A state championship football game against Galax.
It was a furious rally in the final 1:41 of the game that left the Gladiators with one play to end regulation, after getting a touchdown pass from Garrett Campbell to Taz Miller as time ran out. Riverheads coach Robert Casto elected to go for two and the win, but Campbell’s pass to Tyler Smith was just out of his reach, ending the Red Pride’s bid for a fourth state title in 15 years.
The emotional ride to that gut-wrenching ending left even the most casual fan drained.
From the opening kickoff to the end of the third quarter, Riverheads’ offense, which is known for its explosiveness, was frustrated by the Galax defense. The Gladiators were held to 44 total yards in the first half, going three-and-out in four of their five offensive series.
The defense, meanwhile, bent a lot, but didn’t break, contained Galax’s strong running game, yielding only a 1-yard touchdown run. It was that stingy, tough defense that kept the Gladiators close and their hopes alive.
They forced a three-and-out on Galax’s first series of the second half. After the Maroon Tide returned the favor, they took over on their 22 and drove to the Riverheads 13, but the Red Pride held, stopping Galax on a fourth-and-1 at the Riverheads 4.
Then, hope returned for the Gladiators as Campbell converted a third-and-5 from his 9-yard line to get Riverheads out of the shadow of its goal posts as the third quarter ended. The running game finally got untracked, as Colt Miller broke loose for a 56-yard run to the Galax 23.
The roller-coaster then rolled down to disappointment as Galax stopped Riverheads on fourth-and-one at the 4-yard line.
Riverheads would get another chance with 1:23 left.
That’s when the ride really took off as Campbell fielded a punt at his 11 and returned it to the 27. Then the Riverheads side of the field erupted as Campbell threw in the left flat to Diehl, who sprinted 24 yards to the Galax 49.
Then came the play that turned the red-clad sea of Riverheads fans into a boiling cauldron.
Campbell dropped back to pass, avoided a sack and spotted Tyler Smith streaking down the right sideline. Campbell’s pass went right to Smith, who juggled it once, then twice, then hauled it in and went out of bounds at the Galax 6 with just under a minute left.
Three running plays got the ball to the 3, then a false start set the Gladiators back to the 8 with :04 left. What followed was magical, as Campbell took the snap, rolled to his right and found Taz Miller in the right corner of the end zone for the TD as time expired.
As the clock showed all zeroes, all that was left was to choose between kicking the extra point and going to overtime or going for the two-point conversion.
Casto chose to go for the win.
Players, cheerleaders and fans either watched or didn’t watch, but all were hoping for one more piece of magic as the Gladiators lined up for the conversion.
Campbell rolled out again and saw Smith in the back of the end zone, but his pass was just out of Smith’s reach.
Afterward, the coach wouldn’t speak to The News Leader or answer questions about his decision to go for two, although he talked with other media.
There was disappointment on the faces of the Riverheads players as they left the field without saying a word, but you could see that because not one head was down. The Red Pride faced a tough foe, battled to the end, and just ran out of time.