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Some might say this year’s South County football team is following in the same path as last year’s team, the AAA Division 5 state runner-up. They started slow (1-5), finished strong (four straight wins to close the regular season), and opened with a road playoff victory at Madison (19-14 last Friday night).

But 2011 is a distant memory, and the 2012 team — led by senior linebacker Oren Burks, junior quarterback David Symmes and the inside/outside running tandem of senior Warner Hunter and junior LeVaughn Davis — had to find its own identity and figure out how to win close games this year.

Last year’s team was defined by a strong senior-led defense, and when new head coach Gerry Pannoni worked the offense into shape, a winning streak ensued. This year, the defense was slow to come around while the offense was terrorizing opposing defenses. The Stallions lost early-season games even while scoring 35 and 39 points, totals that easily would have carried the 2011 team.

It wasn’t until the seventh game that the Stallions allowed fewer than 21 points — a 57-6 homecoming win against Lee, which featured a pair of defensive scores. Since then, the Lorton squad has given up only an average of 12 points per game.

Symmes, who tossed a pair of touchdown passes in the Stallions’ come-from-behind playoff win against the Warhawks — a 72-yarder to Aaron Jackson in the second quarter and a game-clinching, 5-yard strike to Kevin Quigley with 6:56 to play — said the Oct. 12 win against Lee was the key to the season turnaround.

“It was homecoming and we said, ‘We might as well win,’” Symmes said. “We stopped blaming each other and pointing fingers between offense and defense. We put it on ourselves to do our own jobs and we’d be fine.”

Burks, who had a stellar season as a junior outside linebacker, was moved inside this year and seemed sometimes to get lost in the traffic against bigger schools like West Potomac, Lake Braddock and Robinson. Now that the Stallions are playing the slightly smaller Division 5 schools in the playoffs, the Vanderbilt recruit is able to shine as his coaches are moving him all along the defensive front. He blocked a field goal and a punt, recorded a key fourth-quarter sack and accumulated 12 other tackles in South County’s win against Madison.

With the Stallions trailing 14-12 after the second of two Christian Alvarado field goals, Burks sacked Madison’s Mitchell Goddard to set up a third-and-14 from the Warhawks’ 32. After an incomplete pass, Burks crashed through the middle of the Madison line and blocked Nick Dorka’s punt. The ball was recovered by Michael Gibson, and two plays later, Symmes hit Quigley with the go-ahead touchdown.

“I’ve been playing inside, I’ve been playing end. I’ve been playing all over,” said Burks. “This was a big game for us, and I said before we wanted to make some noise in the region and this is what we’re doing.”

Pannoni’s squad faces undefeated Yorktown (11-0) in Arlington Friday at 7:30 p.m. The Stallions beat the Patriots, 37-13, last year in the regional championship game thanks to an offense that had come into form and two defensive touchdowns.

Yorktown features M.J. Stewart, who has been one of the region’s top running backs for the last two seasons, fullback Arturo Brown, and quarterback Will Roebuck, who threw three touchdown passes in the Patriots’ playoff-opening win against Thomas Jefferson.

“We better stop Stewart and Brown; they’re two good backs,” Pannoni said. “Even though we’re a different team than last year, we have a huge target on our backs. If they beat us they can say, ‘We beat the defending region champs.’ So you have to go out there and execute.”

Madison fizzles late

Heading into the fourth quarter with a 14-9 lead and the support of a home crowd, the Warhawks looked primed for a playoff run in spite of two blocked field goals and a punt snap that went over Dorka’s head. But the Burks blocked punt sealed their fate.

“Put it all on my shoulders,” Madison coach Lenny Schultz said. “I’m the special teams coach and I didn’t get it done.”

In spite of the loss, Schultz pulled some optimism from an 8-3 season highlighted by the Warhawks’ second-straight playoff appearance.

“To come off a 2-8 season couple of years ago and turn the program around, they’ve done a tremendous job,” he said.

No. 1 Stone Bridge vs. No. 5 Langley

The other Division 5 semifinal pits a dominant Stone Bridge team against a Langley side that has won its past four outings.

With an imposing defense and a multifaceted offense at its disposal, the Bulldogs (11-0, 7-0 Liberty) haven't played a close game all year, winning their last five games by an average of 42 points. The latest shellacking came last week in a 69-7 massacre against Edison, which looked on helplessly as quarterback Ryan Burns tossed a career-high six touchdown passes to go with 309 yards on 10 completions.

Langley (7-4, 5-2), coming off its first playoff win in 12 years after last week's 21-14 victory against Hayfield, hopes that star running back Philip Mun (1,703 yards rushing, 18 touchdowns) has a better outing than he did last time he faced Stone Bridge. The suffocating Stone Bridge run defense held Mun to just 40 yards on 17 carries in that Oct. 5 game, which ended in a 27-6 Stone Bridge win.