Brian Batchelor was 11 years old – and a relative newcomer to football – when his father began taking him to Southern Nash games during what would prove to be a historic 1990 season.
“That was my first experience with Southern Nash football, and it was quite an experience,” Batchelor said. “I just remember the excitement and the atmosphere and how it built as we went on to go undefeated in the regular season. I had only been playing (youth) football for one year, but I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Other that the four years he spent as a defensive tackle for the William and Mary gridiron squad, Batchelor has been involved with the Firebirds’ football program in some capacity ever since.
But Batchelor, now Southern Nash’s acting head coach, waited 26 years for the Firebirds to once again post a perfect regular season mark – an accomplishment that was finalized Thursday with a 28-11 road victory at county and conference rival Northern Nash.
Southern, now 11-0 overall and 5-0 in the Big East 3A Conference, also wrapped up its second league championship in the past three campaigns.
“To put it in perspective, we’ve been playing football at Southern Nash since 1968 and we have only had three perfect regular seasons,” Batchelor said. “They were all spread about over long period of time. We talked to our guys about the opportunity they had (Thursday) to do something special – something to be remembered. We have to enjoy it because this doesn’t happen a lot, no matter what school you are talking about.”
But, as is the case with most outings this fall in the competitive Big East, the triumph didn’t come easily.
Northern Nash (5-6, 1-4), which has dropped four games this year by seven points or less, took the lead when quarterback Davontae Wiggins rolled right and found Raymond Bullock for a 10-yard touchdown pass at the 11:01 mark of the second period. An ensuing 2-point conversion was successful, and the Knights had claimed an early 8-0 advantage.
After a rare Southern Nash three-and-out, the Firebirds lined up to punt, only to see Northern’s Isaiah Gay block the attempt, which was eventually recovered at the SN 4-yard line.
The Knights appeared on the verge of another score, but a quarterback sneak on the next play was foiled when Southern’s Demetris Perry stole the ball out of Wiggins’ grasp before speeding upfield 98 yards for a momentum-changing touchdown.
“I told our guys that (Wiggins) was probably going to run on that play – I just had a feeling,” Perry said. “(Wiggins) got a few yards, but I came up from behind him and took the ball. When I turned around, all I saw was green grass. It was a situation where we needed to step up and make a big play. I had to do something.”
Zonovan Knight put the Firebirds ahead for good with a 35-yard touchdown run just 3:49 in front of halftime, but the outcome wasn’t decided until Southern Nash found the end zone twice in the fourth quarter.
Southern led 14-11 before Kendrick Bell broke free for a 38-yard scoring scamper with 8:25 remaining. With the Knights now forced to pass on almost every play, Firebirds’ linebacker Alex Puente sealed the victory with a 40-yard interception return for his club’s second defensive touchdown of the game.
“I was definitely looking for a pass there,” Puente said. “I just ended up being in the right position to make a play. The ball was pretty much thrown right at me.”
Southern Nash, which is historically known for its punishing ground game, has racked up over 40 points on five different occasions this year. But the Knights have allowed 14 points or less in seven outings, so the Firebirds knew coming in that they might not dominate the line of scrimmage as per their usual custom.
With that in mind, SN turned to a defense that Batchelor thinks is one of the best he’s seen during his time in Stanhope – both as a player and coach.
“If you look at what we do on offense and then add what our defense is capable of, it adds a whole different dynamic to everything,’’ Batchelor said. “You hear a lot about how a good offense can wear down an opponent by the fourth quarter. We kind of feel like our defense does that, too, because of the way we are able to get to the ball and make plays.’’
Ironically, Southern Nash’s usual head coach, Brian Foster, was in his first year at the school when the Firebirds made their historic march in 1990, when it didn’t end until the East Regional finals.
Foster was on the sidelines Thursday, but Batchelor is still serving as the acting head coach as Foster devotes time to caring for his wife and son, who are recovering from a serious automobile accident last month.
“We have always had such great community support – our fans will drive two hours one way to watch us play,” Puente said. “We are all a family, and it hurt everyone’s heart when we found out what happened to the Fosters. We knew we had to step up for our coach. He leads us, and this our time to let him know we had his back.”
While Southern Nash will undoubtedly have a favorable postseason seed, the Knights are also eyeing an opportunity to excel in the playoffs after a hard-luck regular season that featured several near-miss victories.
“At some point it is frustrating because we know that we are better (than a 5-6 record),” said Bullock, a three-year starter at defensive back and wide receiver. “It seems like we make little mistakes that turn into something big. But now, we feel like we are 0-0, and we feel like we can play with (potential playoff opponents).”