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UPDATED: Riverheads football team wins record fifth-straight state title
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UPDATED: Riverheads football team wins record fifth-straight state title

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Riverheads v. Galax

Riverheads defensive coach Ray Norcross gets a cooler of ice water dumped on him as the game clock hits zero Saturday afternoon in the high school state championship game played in Greenville. The Gladiators turned back Galax, 65-29, for their fifth consecutive state championship.

GREENVILLE — History made!

The Riverheads football dynasty sits alone in the annals of Virginia history after the Gladiators waltzed to their fifth consecutive Class 1 state championship Saturday with a resounding 65-29 trouncing of the previously unbeaten Galax Maroon Tide.

The five straight trophies, which the Gladiators have won by a margin of 31.2 points, is the first for a public school in any classification. Hampton, Phoebus and Highland Springs had reached four, but were denied in attaining No. 5. That definitely wasn’t the case for Riverheads as it scored on seven straight possessions after going three-and-out on the first series of the game, which Galax (9-1) to take a brief 3-0 lead six minutes into the contest after partially deflecting the Gladiators’ first punt of the playoffs.

Riverheads’ latest triumph, which concludes back-to-back undefeated seasons (15-0 and 10-0), extends its winning streak to 36 overall and 21 in the postseason. The last regular-season loss came to East Rockingham in 2018 and the postseason was to Galax in the 2015 title clash.

The 65-point outburst was the most Riverheads, which will now hang championship banner No. 8 in the gym, had scored in a state playoff game, bettering the 63 points in the 2010 championship against Eastern Montgomery and 2016 semifinals at Galax.

The outcome was a far cry from the 2019 meeting at Salem Stadium when the Maroon Tide had Riverheads on the ropes for much of the game before finally losing 31-24.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that we would win that big,” Riverheads head coach Robert Casto said. “Galax is a very, very good team with a lot of offensive weapons and a solid defense. We got a couple breaks along the way.”

The Gladiators turned to a big-play Air Casto offense and two backbreaking plays that included a kickoff return by a freshman and an interception in the end zone during a 34-point blitz in the second quarter that opened a 44-15 halftime blowout.

Landon Lightner had touchdown receptions from Bennett Dunlap covering 72 and 42 yards, while Trevor Roberts hauled one from 34 yards in the pivotal second-quarter barrage. Those were the only three passes Dunlap threw.

Lightner’s 72-yarder, on the first play after a Galax punt, came with 42 seconds left in the first quarter, giving the Gladiators the lead for good at 10-3. Cooper Robson had tied the game at 3-all with a 26-yard field at the 1:43 mark.

The play-call was the same one Casto hit the Maroon Tide with during the 2016 state semifinals, which set the tone in that 63-21 shellacking.

Lightner, just like Ridge Stokes did in 2016, simply drifted 15 yards behind the defense in the middle of the field, and Dunlap hit him in stride.

“We just practiced that play for the first time this week,” Lightner said. “Bennett put the ball out there and I was determined no one was going to catch me. Bennett is a great quarterback. We have been playing together for years. We call ourselves the Dynamic Duo.”

Dunlap, who is only a sophomore, adds another ring to the family collection. Elijah Dunlap won two, while senior brother Isaiah picked up his third Saturday. Bennett still has a chance to outdo both older brothers with two more years remaining.

“It’s pretty sweet to win another one,” Bennett said. “We don’t focus on titles up here until we win one. We focus on the game in front of us.”

Freshman Cayden Cook-Cash had the first big game-changer after Galax had cut the deficit to 10-9. On the ensuing kickoff, Cook-Cash let the ball get squirt pass him before chasing it down at the 4. He broke to the left sideline and a wall of Gladiators set him free for a 96-yard touchdown gallop.

“That is exactly the way we teach it,” Casto said. “Drop it three times, kick it once and then start running.”

It snowballed from there as the Gladiators increased the lead to 30-9 on Cole Burton’s 27-yard scamper and Lightner’s 42-yard TD reception on the first play after a Galax fumble when he once again was open behind the defense.

Then came another dagger for Galax. After the Maroon Tide cut the deficit in half at 30-15, Cook-Cash returned the kickoff to his own 49. On the first snap, Burton went up the middle 32 yards to Galax’s 19. Two plays later, Dunlap rolled to his right and flipped a pass to Roberts on the drag pattern for an 18-yard score and a 37-15 advantage with 2:47 left in the half.

The Maroon Tide again had a chance to slice the margin, but Isaiah Dunlap came up with a momentum-killing interception in the end zone with 56 seconds left in the half. Galax was also receiving the second-half kickoff, making the pick even bigger.

With the ball at the 20, Casto was content on running out the clock, but on first down Bennett Dunlap picked up 21 yards on a sneak. On the next play, Cook-Cash swept the left corner and set sail 59 yards to the end zone with 19 seconds on the clock.

“I wasn’t going to throw the ball, but once Bennett had that run, that opened it up for us to do something,” Casto said. “That was a huge shift of momentum with the interception and then the score because they were getting the ball to start the second half.”

The Gladiators never took their foot off the throttle in the second half. Galax quarterback Cole Pickett threw a pair of third-quarter TD passes to Keaton Beeman, but Cook-Cash answered the first score with an 11-yard sweep to the end zone for the Gladiators’ seventh-straight scoring possession.

Aidan Miller and Burton wrapped up Riverheads’ scoring parade with TD runs of 4 and 2 yards, respectively, in the fourth quarter.

Riverheads’ history-making day didn’t faze the unflappable Casto.

“We don’t get caught up in all that talk about numbers,” he said. “We aren’t into numbers. We just wanted to finish the season with a win.”

Casto admitted he threw a few extra wrinkles here and there at the Maroon Tide, especially in the first half.

“I told the kids at halftime that I had shot all my bullets. I didn’t have any left,” he said. “That was one of the bullets on the first touchdown pass. I had the play in the back pocket from a few years ago.”

The eight-time champion head coach was elated with the team’s performance.

“Everybody contributed in some way,” he said. “Our kids were prepared to play. They knew what to expect and they executed. The guys on the offensive line were the unsung heroes. They did a great job blocking and getting the backs free.

“The biggest key was being able to stop the run. If they could beat us with the passing game, then so be it,” Casto said.

Riverheads’ defense limited the Maroon Tide to 70 rushing yards on 29 carries. Pickett, who will be a preferred walk-on at Virginia Tech in the fall, did throw for 300 yards, completing 23-of-44 passes and throwing three TDs, but he had a fumble and interception that led to 14 points off turnovers.

“Pickett is the best quarterback I have coached against,” Casto said. “We had a lot of pressure on him, but he stood in there and made the right passes.”

On the other hand, the Gladiators rushed for 357 yards and passed for 132. Zac Smiley, playing his last high school game and winning a fourth ring, had 125 yards on 11 carries. He only rushed four times in the first half, collecting 68 yards, most coming on a 58-yard scamper. Cook-Cash had 97 yards on nine rushes and two TDs and the monster kickoff return. Burton collected 66 yards on seven carries and two scores.

Casto and his Gladiators have exactly three months before practice starts Aug. 1 for the 2021 season and a chance at two titles in one calendar year.

The just completed season was only 10 weeks, but Casto said it seemed a lot longer.

“You just held your breath every Tuesday of every week wondering if you would get shutdown,” he said. “It says a lot of everybody involved that we made it to the end.”

RIVERHEADS 65, GALAX 29

GALAX 3 12 14 0 — 29

RIVERHEADS 10 34 7 14 — 65

First Quarter

GALAX — Gallardo 24 FG

RIV — Robson 26 FG

RIV — Lightner 72 pass from B.Dunlap (Robson kick)

Second Quarter

GALAX — Sawyers 49 pass from Pickett (kick blocked)

RIV — Cook-Cash 96 kickoff return (kick blocked)

RIV — Burton 27 run (Robson kick)

RIV — Lightner 42 pass from B.Dunlap (Robson kick)

GALAX — Beeman 1 run (kick failed)

RIV — Roberts 34 pass from B.Dunlap (Robson kick)

RIV — Cook-Cash 59 run (Robson kick)

Third Quarter

GALAX — Beeman 17 pass from Pickett (Gallardo kick)

RIV — Cook-Cash 11 run (Robson kick)

GALAX — Beeman 9 pass Pickett (Gallardo kick)

Fourth Quarter

RIV — Miller 4 run (Robson kick)

RIV — Burton 2 run (Robson kick)

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