Hid­ing in plain sight

High­land Springs’ of­fen­sive line plays key part in Springers’ suc­cess

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - SPORTS - BY ROB WITHAM Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent

The High­land Springs of­fense has ac­counted for 82 touch­downs through 14 games this sea­son. With lit­tle fan­fare, of­fen­sive line­men like ju­niors Evan Robin­son and Suirad Ware own some re­spon­si­bil­ity for every one of them.

When Robin­son, the left tackle, and Ware, the right guard, re­turn to Arm­strong Sta­dium at Hamp­ton Univer­sity for Satur­day’s Class 5 state foot­ball cham­pi­onship against Stone Bridge, they’ll do so with a com­plete un­der­stand­ing of the task at hand and a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the op­por­tu­nity.

They’ll also con­tinue a proud tra­di­tion of Springer line­men, hon­or­ing past play­ers and team­mates and at­tempt­ing to be­come the third team in Vir­ginia High School League history to win four con­sec­u­tive state foot­ball cham­pi­onships.

It takes a spe­cial young man to crave a po­si­tion on the of­fen­sive line, said

High­land Springs as­sis­tant coach Brad Al­ston, who, along with Kevin Dent, over­sees the unit.

“At our po­si­tion, we don’t get the lime­light, but we def­i­nitely get the spot­light when some­thing goes wrong,” Al­ston said. “I’m al­ways on them about ex­e­cut­ing. But to play of­fen­sive line, you’ve got to love the game. You’re go­ing into phys­i­cal, hand-to-hand com­bat every play. There’s got to be a lit­tle twitch in you that en­joys that.”

Robin­son’s Springer ca­reer be­gan re­plac­ing a leg­end, Mekhi Bec­ton, who is cur­rently start­ing at Louisville. Robin­son’s open­ing start, in 2017 against Her­mitage, pro­vided mo­ti­va­tion that lasts to this day.

“It was the most ner­vous I’d ever been, ever,” said Robin­son, who be­gan play­ing foot­ball at age 5. “That loss fu­eled me to give my all on every play. That was my mind­set.”

While al­ways preach­ing ex­e­cu­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, one thing Al­ston doesn’t need to ask for from Robin­son is ef­fort.

“Evan shocked us all his fresh­man year,” Al­ston said, not­ing how sum­mer work­outs are bro­ken up into two parts, one for new play­ers, one for re­turnees. “Evan prac­ticed at both, with no­body ask­ing him. We had to try to get him to stop be­cause, as a fresh­man, you’re go­ing to burn your­self out.”

Al­ston de­scribed Ware as “a di­a­mond in the rough” when he ar­rived on var­sity, ex­pe­ri­enced at line­backer. Know­ing the depth at line­backer, Al­ston sug­gested the of­fen­sive line. Ware read­ily ac­cepted, prov­ing to be a quick study to earn a start­ing nod for a then two-time de­fend­ing state cham­pion.

“Foot­work and in­side pen­e­tra­tion. No A-gap pen­e­tra­tion at all,” Ware said when asked what were the top tasks to learn. “No pres­sure in­side to the quar­ter­back at all.”

Win­ning the war in­side, play after play, gives quar­ter­back D’Vonte Waller time to throw, the run­ning backs holes to burst through and the en­tire of­fen­sive line sat­is­fac­tion. From first downs to touch­downs, Robin­son, Ware, cen­ter Dean­dre Owens, right tackle D’onte Griggs and left guard Ja­son Wright sa­vor the fruits of their la­bor, even if most fans don’t play close at­ten­tion to their de­tail.

“We’re do­ing our part just like the quar­ter­backs, run­ning backs, and wide­outs,” Robin­son said with a smile. “It’s a team sport. A lit­tle recog­ni­tion would be nice.”

The ma­jor­ity of the recog­ni­tion for this unit per­haps comes from the very group it looks to em­u­late.

“The cul­ture we’ve cre­ated here, the older guys come back. Ta­vian An­der­son, Bec­ton, Michael Greene, Aaron Mot­ley, those guys who laid the foun­da­tion for what’s go­ing on, they come back,” Al­ston said. “And when they do, they don’t watch the skill kids, they come to us. We do have our own fra­ter­nity.”

It’s a fra­ter­nity that is ex­pe­ri­enced, still hun­gry and, Satur­day in Hamp­ton, look­ing to make history.

ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/TIMES-DIS­PATCH

High­land Springs’ Evan Robin­son (right) had his first start on the Springers’ of­fen­sive line in the team’s loss to Her­mitage last year. He said he was more ner­vous than he’d ever been that game, but that the loss fu­eled him to give his all on every play.

High­land Springs strength coach Rob­bie Jack­son talks with play­ers Thurs­day as they pre­pare for Satur­day’s state cham­pi­onship game.

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