Highland Springs running back Dre’Shaun Taylor is 6 feet tall and weighs an imposing 245 pounds. Yet he’s just a freshman. On Saturday night in the Class 5 state semifinals, Taylor proved difficult to tackle.

On his second carry of the night, he barreled forward, pushing away defenders and refusing to be brought down. He had gone 27 yards by the time his body hit the grass. Taylor scored two touchdowns and converted a key fourth down late in the game, sending Highland Springs to a 28-18 victory over visiting Nansemond River (Suffolk) in the Class 5 state semifinals.

Highland Springs (13-1) will travel to Hampton University next Saturday for the Class 5 state championship against Tuscarora. Win one more, and it will have three consecutive state titles under its belt.

“I can’t wait to go,” said linebacker Alex Shafiq.

For a second straight week, Highland Springs turned over the ball early in the game and quickly trailed by double digits. Last week, three turnovers led to Hermitage taking a 14-0 lead. This time, a D’Vonte Waller interception and a Rayquan Smith fumble that was returned 84 yards for a touchdown gave Nansemond River (9-5) a 10-0 lead.

But second halves have been Highland Springs’ happy place lately. For the second game in a row, the Springers engineered a second-half comeback. With 4:42 left in the third quarter, Waller threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Billy Kemp (98 receiving yards), and the Springers led 14-10.

That’s when Taylor entered the game. He was frustrated that he hadn’t appeared in the game yet. He’s been banged up lately, leading to Smith getting most of the carries. Taylor channeled his frustration into his legs, which churned and pushed against the Nansemond River defenders. He needed just nine carries to rush for 75 yards and two touchdowns.

His first touchdown came from 17 yards out. He had mostly open grass in front of him. There was a defender waiting for him at the goal line. Instead of running him over, Taylor left his feet, leaped in the air and landed in the end zone.

“He plays with straight heart,” said Kemp. “I can’t wait to see what he does in the future.”

Taylor never expected to have so much impact as a freshman. He expected be more of a fourth-quarter player, he said. Taylor arrived at Highland Springs a much anticipated freshman. People already knew his name, thanks to his genetic gifts and his ferocity on the field, said Highland Springs coach Loren Johnson.

Taylor didn’t appear in a game until the fifth game of the season against Lee-Davis. He scored a touchdown on his first carry.

But after Taylor scored Saturday, Nansemond River answered with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. The Warriors were down only 3 points.

Nansemond River operated the single-wing offense, running the ball almost exclusively and disguising where the ball was going. The Warriors rushed for 149 yards. They attempted three passes, completing one for no yards. They key to stopping them?

“Hit the first thing you see coming,” said Shafiq.

With a 3-point lead and 5:06 left in the game, Highland Springs again turned to Taylor. The Springers faced fourth-and-1 at their 38. Assistant Devon Simmons made the suggestion to Johnson. “Let’s go for it. Let’s win the game,” said Simmons.

The ball went to Taylor, who surged forward for 3 yards and easily reached the first down. Five plays later — including passes of 23 and 27 yards to Kemp — Taylor got the ball again.

He rushed 2 yards for a touchdown, putting the Springers up 28-18 with 2½ minutes to go. The Springers were ready to celebrate.

“I knew I had my team behind my back, the crowd behind my back,” said Taylor. “And if it weren’t for the coaches, I wouldn’t be here.”

Waller finished 13 of 18 for 231 yards, a touchdown and an interception, throwing to seven receivers. The Springers’ defense was tough throughout the game. If it hadn’t been for the turnovers and the 12 penalties they committed, the Springers would have had a great night.

But they’ll settle for the win and a chance to play another week.

“It feels great,” said Johnson. “It’s going to be a short night. We’re going to get to work.”


Nansemond River 10 0 0 8 — 18

Highland Springs 0 7 7 14 — 28

NDR—FG 19 Lomax

NDR—Branch 84 fumble return (Lomax kick)

HS—Waller 1 run (Alsheskie kick)

HS—Kemp 9 pass from Waller (Alsheskie kick)

HS—Taylor 17 run (Alsheskie kick)

NDR—Gordon 8 run (Gordon run)

HS—Taylor 2 run (Alsheskie kick)

RUSHING

NDR: Johnson 15-59, Stringer 8-32, Lewis 3- -5, Faulk 2-1, Riddick 4-4, Williams 1-1, Gordon 4-52. HS: McKeiver 4-20, Waller 8- -8, Kemp 1-7, Smith 16-73, Taylor 9-75, Jones 2-5.

PASSING

NDR: Stringer 0-1-0-0, Riddick 1-2-0-0. HS: Waller 13-18-1-231.

RECEIVING

NDR: Johnson 1-0. HS: McKeiver 1-3, Kemp 6-98, Carey 1-11, Smith 1-15, Smalls 1-54, Wells 1-6, Jones 2-44.

ekolenich@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6109

@EricKolenichRTD

Sports reporter

Eric Kolenich writes sports stories for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, focusing on local athletes and teams. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008 with a BA in English and joined the paper in 2009. (804) 649-6109

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