CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Eastern Hancock Royals gathered together as one — as a family — before the opening kickoff at Ed Knarr Field on Friday night.
Huddled behind the end zone, the Royals knelt in dedication to their fallen teammate Riley Settergren, who tragically passed away prior to his senior year in an automobile accident this past July.
As they raised up and moved toward the field in a sea of blue, they touched a boulder behind the goal posts, outfitted with a plaque commemorating Riley’s life.
It was senior night, and the team’s final home game of the regular season. They broke the sideline by shouting in unison, “We got your back.”
“This has been tough. This has been really, really tough,” Eastern Hancock head coach Jim O’Hara remarked on the past nine-plus weeks. “That (dedication) was special.”
The Royals (5-4) rode their emotions to a pair of leads, including a 7-0 advantage, against visiting Lapel (6-3) in an attempt to snap their two-game losing streak before the postseason next week.
However, the Bulldogs and quarterback Levi Frazier refused to play along, defeating the Royals 21-19.
Frazier completed 16 of 34 passes for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns while the defense stalled the Royals’ hopes of a comeback to hand Eastern Hancock their third straight loss.
“We told the kids. There are so many little things we need to clean up,” O’Hara said. “There are just a lot of little things, but I thought our kids’ effort was good. It’s a tough loss.”
Eastern Hancock struck first on its first drive, capping a eight-play series with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Jarett Lewis to Payton Wilkinson.
Lewis, completed 8 of 17 passes for 135 yards, but he struggled the rest of the night as the defensive pressure consistently forced him into daring throws and to scramble out of the pocket.
Lapel tied the game in the second quarter 7-7 behind a 5-yard touchdown run by Dawson Phillips, who rumbled for 73 yards on 21 carries.
The Bulldogs pulled ahead 14-7 in the second quarter as Frazier connected with Justin Engle for a 51-yard touchdown on third-and-7.
Engle hauled in six catches for 124 yards as Lapel converted 7 of 14 third-down chances to consistently extend drives.
“It was difficult to lose such a close game. It always is, but I thought we showed tremendous effort,” Eastern Hancock senior Luke Splater said.
The Royals’ determination showed during a 13-play drive in the second quarter, which AJ Muegge capped with a 1-yard touchdown run. Eastern Hancock burned nearly five minutes off the clock but the extra-point was blocked.
Eastern Hancock scored first again to open the second half with Muegge sprinting into the end zone for a 4-yard run, but a two-point conversion failed and their second lead sat at 19-14.
Lapel pull ahead for good to end the third quarter as Frazier and Alex Cole partnered for a 16-yard touchdown to put the Bulldogs up 21-19.
From there the Lapel defense took over, forcing two punts and a turnover on downs as the Royals started their final drive with 1:23 remaining. A quick four-and-out, however, halted their progress.
“It’s a new season. It doesn’t matter what we did,” O’Hara said. “The first nine games are just warm-up games. We need to get our energy and our focus. We’ve been through a lot.”
The Royals open Class 2A Sectional 37 play next Friday at Centerville. If they win, they could see their home field once again.
“It was the last possible home game tonight, hopefully not, so tension was running high and it was close the whole game,” Splater said. “We have a great team, so I think we’ll rally around each other after this.”