The 37th edition of the Battle of Chester took place Friday at J.Wilson Crump Stadium, and both teams knew what was on the line: Bragging rights and pride.
For L.C. Bird High School, a victory would even the series at 18 wins and one draw apiece. And even the series is exactly what the Skyhawks did, defeating Thomas Dale by a count of 29-3 behind the legs of junior Yakkie Johnson and a strong defensive performance.
Johnson kept it simple. He wanted to thank two people.
“I want to first of all thank God,” said Johnson. “And I want to also thank my offensive line.”
That offensive line played exceptionally well against Dale, opening big holes all night long for Johnson and the other Bird running backs.
Johnson went on to rush for 220 yards on 31 attempts for the Skyhawks, reaching pay dirt on the ground once. He also totaled a touchdown and 48 yards through the passing game.
Bird coach David Bedwell applauded the line’s progress and Johnson’s game.
“Upfront, our line is getting better every week, and those guys are working hard to get better,“ explained Bedwell. “And Yakkie, Yakkie Johnson is amazing, he reminds me of Rashad Lewis. He had the fumble and was mad at himself, but he got that fumble trying to get extra yards, he’s always fighting.”
Bird struck first, going 24 yards on an Anthony Harris scamper to the end zone at the 7:05 mark. Harris totaled 51 yards on the ground for the game.
Thomas Dale answered on the next drive, spurred by a big fourth-down conversion run by Ralpheal Wheat. A field goal by Anthony Prevost followed, cutting Bird’s lead to four.
The second quarter was marked by stingy defense on both sides, with both teams leading drives into the red zone that didn’t result in scores. Thomas Dale successfully defended a Harris pass to Deon Clark, and the Skyhawks were able to force a turnover with Dale threatened, as senior James Santiago picked off the pass, ending the scoring threat and sending the teams to the half with a 7-3 score.
“We played Bird tough for one half,” said Thomas Dale head coach Kevin Tucker. “In the second half, we started to make those rookie mistakes, and I’ve challenged the kids to practice harder to achieve better results.”
Bird pulled away in the second half, stopping the Knight’s offense. Harris hooked up with Yakkie Johnson for a 21-yard touchdown, which was followed by a two-point conversion by junior Teon Lewis.
Johnson added his second touchdown on the ground in the wake of a Harris pick on defense, extending the lead out to 22-3.
“He makes us go defensively,“ said Bedwell. “He’s our best defensive player, and offensively he’s steady, unselfish and wants to spread the ball around.”
Harris connected for his third overall touchdown one drive later on a 31-yard completion to Tyrek Branch, who also plays basketball for the Skyhawks.
Bird’s Johnson was named MVP of the game, which was the next chapter in a matchup that was voted one of the 42 greatest high school rivalries. Winners received championship hats and those ever-elusive bragging rights that are handed out each year.
“Being a senior, a lot of people were going to be out here and I wanted them to remember that we beat Dale my senior year,” said Harris. “We really were able to focus in practice and play like we practiced, and that led to the victory tonight.”
Thomas Dale got good performances from Wheat, who rushed for 105 yards on 14 carries, and Adam Ross, who finished the game with nine tackles.
Former NFL running back Ken Oxendine and University of Richmond linebacker Eric McBryde were on hand to receive rewards, and two students received scholarships from the U.S. Marines in conjunction with the Great American rivalry program. Derrick Gore received the $500 scholarship for the Skyhawks and Robert White received the award for Thomas Dale.
“Robert is a very hard worker in the classroom and academics-wise you couldn’t ask for a better kid,” said Tucker. “He was an all-district center last year and voluntarily moved to right guard to make our line better, so he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
The Skyhawks, who improved to 3-0 with the win, will host Monacan Friday at 7:30 p.m. Thomas Dale (1-2) will look to rebound against a much improved Petersburg squad on the road in their first Central District game of the season.