Finishing the regular season with just one more win than a year ago may have seemed like an incidental improvement for the West Potomac Wolverines. A 35-7 win over the Chantilly Chargers in the first round of the Northern Region Division 6 playoffs on Friday would suggest otherwise.
Caleb Henderson completed 15 of 28 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown and Brandon Johnson added 202 yards and four scores on the ground as West Potomac beat last year's regional runner-up and state quarter-finalist and earned a rematch with Westfield in the second round. While the offense was impressive as usual, it was the Wolverines' best defensive effort of the season that keyed the victory.
"That's been us all season," head coach Eric Henderson, Caleb's father, said. "We have to get our feet to us and then we settle down and we play great defense. We put kids in positions to make plays and they respond."
The Wolverines overcame a slow start on both sides of the ball. Chargers' quarterback Sonny Romine engineered a balanced opening drive and DeAndre Harris scored from three yards out to put Chantilly on the board. Henderson, a sophomore who came into the game ranked second in the Northern Region in both passing yards (1,846) and passing touchdowns (21), missed on his first three passes and West Potomac was forced into what would end up being its only punting situation.
That was about the last thing that went wrong for the Wolverines. Romine struggled to move the ball on offense after that, and Chantilly had run just 19 plays by the end of the first half. Romine completed just three of eight passes for a total of eight yards and came out of the game late in the third quarter with an apparent injury. His replacement, Tommy Vance, had equal difficulty against West Potomac's relentless blitz and the only one of his four passes that didn't fall to the ground was an interception by Tamaric Wilson.
The Wolverines were just warming up. Henderson completed his next five passes over the span of two drives, each of which ate up the clock and ended in Johnson touchdown runs.
"The first series wasn't so hot," Caleb said. "I knew it was a good Chantilly team and I had to get the jitters out."
With a 14-7 lead and about three minutes left before halftime, the Wolverines got good field position near midfield after a Chantilly punt. Unwilling to settle, Henderson showed why he's already one of the region's best signal callers as a sophomore and found Tyrone Jenkins in the back corner of the end zone on a fade route for an 11-yard TD with five seconds left on the clock.
The Wolverines didn't slow down in the second half as Johnson added a 33-yard TD just three plays after returning the opening kickoff to the Chantilly 45-yard line. The defense continued to pressure Romine, whose only second-half completion went for a three yard loss.
Chargers' running back Will Hill-Pensamiento, who came into the contest with 13 rushing touchdowns and five 100-yard games, was never able to break into the West Potomac secondary, and finished with 74 yards. In fact, the Wolverines completely took away the big play component of Chantilly's offense, surrendering just four plays of more than 10 yards—two of which came on the opening drive—until the second-team defense came in after the outcome was ensured.
Johnson delivered the knockout blow with a 16-yard TD with 3:53 left on the clock. The Wolverines are now 5-0 when he goes over the century mark in yards and 1-3 when he puts up less than 60.
"We talked all week about how Brandon, as a sophomore, carried us by himself, and now that we have weapons we still need to rely on him," Eric Henderson said. "We still need him to have those 10-yard tough runs. He did it tonight, he really came up big."
With such a young team, the coach believes improvements can be drastic on even a weekly basis. Just how much Henderson has improved as a quarterback will be on display next Friday against Westfield, the No. 2 team in the D.C. area and a 21-3 winner over Robinson in another quarterfinal. The Westfield Bulldogs routed West Potomac 31-10 on October 14 in a game Caleb Henderson remembers well.
"I remember how big their linebackers were," he said. "I didn't really understand what to do on offense. I've been watching film of that game every night because it just haunts me."