Of all the eight Northern Region football playoff games taking place this Friday night, the one which might be the most difficult to foresee a final outcome on is the Div. 6 matchup between Westfield and Chantilly, set to take 7:30 p.m. at Chantilly High School.
Both squads are part of the powerful Concorde District and, during the regular season, went up against some of the top teams in the region in such district foes as Centreville, Oakton and district champion Robinson. Both teams are certainly battle tested and capable of making a strong run at the region title within the eight-team Div. 6 playoff field.
But only one will move on. That is part of the bitter-sweet nature of the postseason. You can put together an exceptional regular season, like Chantilly did going 8-2, and then have to face a sleeping giant such as Westfield which was uncertain if it would even qualify for the playoffs during the final few weeks of the regular season.
"It's a very difficult first round [game] for us," said Chantilly coach Mike Lalli, whose team trailed Westfield, 14-0, during a regular season meeting on Oct. 22 before scoring 17 fourth quarter points to stun the Bulldogs, 17-14. "To have to play any team twice is difficult because of the quality of the coaches and their ability to adjust and prepare for you. The Westfield coaching staff is excellent and their team is very talented so we have a big challenge ahead of us."
No doubt. Westfield was not on the radar of many region football observers following a 1-2 start. The Bulldogs, who have been formidable defensively all season but have struggled on offense, were just 4-4 going into their final two weeks. Following the tough loss to the Chargers, Westfield bounced back with district wins over both Centreville, 35-14, and Herndon, 44-7, to clinch a playoff berth as the No. 6-seed.
"They have really been playing aggressive, physical football at a high level of intensity and execution over the past few weeks," said Lalli, of Westfield. "It is going to be a very difficult game for us."
Chantilly, the No. 3-seed, won its first six games before losing in double overtime to host Centreville in the annual Sully Bowl game. The Chargers rebounded from that setback with the come-from-behind victory over Westfield then defeated Herndon. Chantilly experienced its second loss of the season last week in its regular season finale game against host Oakton, which got a fourth quarter field goal from kicker Eric Goins to edge Lalli's squad, 17-14.
WESTFIELD COACH Tom Verbanic credited Chantilly with its comeback win over his team in week eight. The Bulldogs were seemingly in control before the Chargers rallied behind a pair of touchdown runs from quarterback Carson Romine and a 28-yard field goal by Billy Germain. Some onlookers felt that Westfield had blown a sure win. Verbanic knew better.
"Would've, could've, should've doesn't get you anywhere," he said, of speculating on how the Bulldogs let the game slip away. "We played well in the first half. They played well in the second half. They're 8-2 and have played well all year. They're a very solid football team."
Chantilly loves to run the football and take minutes off the clock. But Westfield's defense is excellent against the run and held the Chargers' running game in check for the most part. The exception was the running of Romine, the Chargers' QB who rushed for 109 yards and the two scores that game.
"They're a good ball control offense so trying to get them off the field is a big deal," said Verbanic. "And on defense they've been very good all year. You've got to find a way to get some yards on them."
Looking back at its season, wins over such talented teams as West Potomac, Oakton and Centreville were critical in getting Westfield the power points it needed to ultimately qualify for the postseason.
"We're very excited," said Verbanic, of making the playoffs. "It's been a tough year and we've played a very tough schedule. We didn't know if we'd make [the playoffs] or not, we just kept plugging away."
The challenge for the bulldogs if they are to make a playoff run will be having better success moving the ball. The Bulldogs were led on the ground this season by running backs Kendell Anderson (600-plus rushing yards), a junior, and senior Brian Monticue (400-plus).
"We haven't had good consistency on offense this year that we need," said Verbanic. "We've been playing very good defense the entire year."
The coach said he enjoys the district matchups with such teams as Chantilly.
"It's a good, spirited rivalry," he said, of playing the Chargers. "Every time you play in the Concorde it feels like a playoff game. One thing I tell the kids is, for better or worse, we're playoff tested."