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A Homecoming Win for the Ages

Leach at forefront in Herndon’s upset win over Westfield.

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Sam Groter ran for an overtime touchdown to help the Hornets best Westfield.

In front of a large homecoming crowd, Herndon High football player Zach Leach had the kind of game that would cause most people to jump for joy or collapse in despair. The range of on-field emotions seemed almost endless for Leach, who ended up being one of his team’s heroes in the Hornets’ dramatic, 29-28 double overtime win over previously unbeaten Westfield. The late season, Concorde District affair took place on a brisk, breezy fall afternoon last Saturday at Herndon.

Leach, a senior who plays running back on offense and a linebacker position on defense, will certainly never forget homecoming 2008. Not only was he part of a Herndon team that captured a breath-taking win over one of the Northern Region’s elite teams, but he played an instrumental role in the ups and downs of the Hornets’ day.

The long, wonderful afternoon of football concluded in Herndon’s favor when Westfield, following a touchdown in its second series of overtime downs from the 10 yard line, failed to convert a two-point extra point pass from three yards out. Herndon junior linebacker Dan Maddox had hit Westfield quarterback Danny Fenyak just as he was in the motion of throwing the ball towards the left side of the end zone. The jolting hit resulted in the ball falling well short of its target and bouncing harmlessly to the ground. With that, the Herndon players erupted in joy and began an on-field celebration that was complemented by the loud, ecstatic cheers of the partisan crowd.

Herndon had won, improving its record to 6-3 and dramatically improving its chances of qualifying for the upcoming Div. 6 region playoffs. On top of that, the Hornets had handed Westfield (7-1) its first loss of the season.

"They just couldn’t ask for a better game," said Leach, of the fans who witnessed what could qualify as one of the best games in the region this season. "It was the first time we’ve ever beaten Westfield. We rose to the challenge."

<b>THE HORNETS</b> certainly did raise their level of play for the biggest game of their season thus far, and so did Leach, who experienced both heroic moments and forgettable moments. He caught one touchdown pass on offense, and intercepted three balls on defense. But he also dropped a pass that would have resulted in six points, and turned an interception into a two-point safety for Westfield.

On the game’s second play, Herndon shocked the Bulldogs when Leach got behind the Westfield secondary on a long post pattern and caught quarterback Zack Ozycz’s perfectly thrown, lofting pass in stride before running the rest of the way untouched for a 61-yard touchdown play. The play started as a handoff to Trevor Johnson, but Johnson lateralled the ball back to Ozycz, who then threw the touchdown strike.

"The [defensive] safety came up and I was [past him]," said Leach, of his route. "The ball was right there."

Bam, just like that, the Hornets, to the delight of their crowd, had taken the lead.

<b>LATER</b> in the first quarter, Leach, who along with all his other duties for Herndon is also the team’s punter, experienced another extreme when his punt attempt was blocked by Westfield’s Dylan Doty, who went on to pick up the loose ball and run 30 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.

Then, early in the second quarter, Leach, once again, was right in the middle of a big play. On a first-and-goal from the Westfield 20, Ozycz, the Herndon QB, dropped back and tossed a spiraling ball towards the left hash mark of the end zone. Leach, who had beaten the Bulldogs’ defense, was all alone and going for the catch. But, with his arms outstretched to bring in the ball, he could not make what would have been a difficult catch. Instead of a touchdown, Herndon had a missed opportunity and failed to score on the possession.

On Westfield’s ensuing possession, it drove from its own 20 all the way to the Herndon 11. Then, on a second down play, Leach was the main figure in perhaps the game’s most bizarre play. Fenyak, the Westfield quarterback, threw a pass to a wide open receiver in the right side of the end zone. But the receiver dropped the ball and Leach caught the deflection. He then started to run the ball out of the end zone before having second thoughts. So, he went back into the end zone where he was tackled for a two-point safety in Westfield’s favor. Leach’s thinking was that Herndon would get a touchback call if he went back into his team’s own end zone, and that the Hornets would begin an offensive possession at their 20 yard line. But the officials called it a safety. As a result, Westfield was ahead 9-7.

"I got confused and didn’t know whether to stay back or run up-field," said Leach. "It was a good call."

Said Herndon coach Joe Sheaffer. "He made a great play, but made a bad decision for a split second."

<b>LEACH’S NEXT</b> big play came early in the second half when he intercepted a short Westfield pass at the Herndon 25 and returned it 15 yards to the 40 to stop cold a Bulldogs’ drive.

In the latter part of the third quarter, Leach was not so much a part of as much as a witness to a Herndon fake punt that went bad. The Hornets attempted a fake punt. Instead of the ball being snapped to Leach, it was snapped to Ozycz, who made his poorest pass of the day resulting in a Westfield interception.

The last pivotal play Leach was involved in was perhaps the biggest play of the game during regulation play. Westfield, leading 15-7 and at its own 32 in the fourth quarter, faced a first down. On a pass play, Fenyak’s aerial was deflected and snatched by Leach for his third interception of the game. He returned the ball about 11 yards to the Westfield 24.

With Herndon in possession, the Hornets attempted an option pass play in which Leach threw an incompletion. No worries, five plays later, Herndon’s Ozycz scored on a quarterback keeper from one yard out. His ensuing extra point pass to Nick Impellizzeri tied the game at 15. Leach’s interception had set up the game-tying points.

Ultimately, the game went into overtime where Herndon prevailed.

"In the past when we played Westfield, they had the intimidation factor," said Leach. "We believed we could beat them this year."

And Leach was a big part of the victory.

"Zach is a great athlete, and really what you need from a football player," said coach Sheaffer. "He plays so many minutes on offense, defense and as our punter. He’s probably one of our most valuable players."

<b>GAME NOTES:</b> Westfield, on its first overtime possession, scored to go ahead 22-15. But Herndon came right back on the first play of its ensuing possession when running back Sam Groter (66 rushing yards) broke through the line for 10 yards and a touchdown. Joe Eftekhari’s clutch, point-after kick tied the game at 22 and forced a second overtime. In Herndon’s second set of downs, Groter gained six yards on first down to get the ball to the four yard line. Two plays later, QB Ozycz hit Impellizzeri for a touchdown strike. Eftekhari once again came through with the extra point kick and the Hornets led 29-22. Westfield would score on its second OT possession, but its failed two-point conversion try ended the game.

Ozycz said Herndon was confident going into the overtime. "I felt the momentum," said Ozycz (14-of-23, 113 yards, 1 TD).

"The game was overwhelming. I was happy when Westfield went for two. I knew we could stop them. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. I’ve played [football] 11 years and never felt this way after a game."

Herndon plays at Robinson this Friday night.