Zac Williams was the first. Then Daquan Romero, Paul Morant and Chaz Robinson.
They were exhausted, soaked and filthy. They were eager to find shelter, warmth and dry clothes.
But before departing Darling Stadium's shredded field Saturday afternoon, each of these Phoebus Phantoms embraced Hanover running back Deane Cheatham.
"You've got all the right stuff," Robinson told Cheatham before expressing the same sentiment to other Hawks.
Indeed, a Hanover team that cannot match Phoebus' pedigree and talent gave the Phantoms fits before falling 10-7 in a Division 5 state semifinal.
"A lot of respect for them because they're a really good team and they came out very strong," Morant said.
Hanover dominated early by running between the tackles, controlling clock and stuffing Phoebus tailback Colby Goodwyn. The ringleaders were Cheatham, a Toby Gerhart clone right down to the No. 7 jersey and Robocop running style, and defensive end Blake Jones, an Ohio University commitment and the Hawks' first Bowl Subdivision recruit.
Cheatham's 1-yard plunge gave Hanover (9-4) a 7-0 halftime lead — at which stage Phoebus had one first down and 22 yards total offense, 14 coming on its first snap, a handoff to Robinson.
"The first half, our (offensive) line was kind of playing soft," said Morant, the Phantoms' quarterback and safety. "So we had to break it down to them at halftime, that it wasn't going to be like that."
First-year coach Stan Sexton welcomed the senior's chutzpah.
"Paul's a great leader," he said. "He told them, 'We're better than this. There's no way in the world they should be beating us on the ball like this.' "
Center Justin Williamson, tackles Micah Blakely and Jonathan McLean and guards Corey McKoy and Raymond Welsh responded. Moreover, Sexton and his assistants deployed two tight ends in Romero and Anthony Haste.
The product was vintage Phoebus football.
The Phantoms owned the ball for 18:14 of the second half compared to 5:46 for the Hawks. And after netting no yards on five first-half carries, Goodwyn rumbled for 121 on 27 in the second, including the decisive 2-yard touchdown with 8:36 remaining.
"We'd miss a block here, miss a block there, get run down from behind," Sexton said of the first half. "We made the adjustment going to two tights in the second half and try to slow them off the edge. They thought, 'If you're going to beat us, we're going to make you beat us with the pass.' "
Sure enough, Goodwyn found gaping holes after Morant completed a play-action pass to Romero for 21 yards late in the third quarter. Given the stakes and sloppy conditions, Phoebus did not throw again.
"We found a way to win in the end," Sexton said. "Defensively we really bowed our neck in the second half."
As usual, Romero was unblockable at times, twice sacking Sam Rogers, Hanover's freshman quarterback. And on the series following Goodwyn's touchdown, Williams and McLean combined on a 14-yard sack of Rogers.
After reaching Phoebus' 42 on their first possession of the third quarter, the Hawks never crossed midfield.
In essence, order was restored. Hanover, a seventh-year program that's won 33 games, exited. Phoebus, a four-time state champion this decade, won its 29th consecutive game and advanced to Saturday's Division 5 final at the University of Virginia's Scott Stadium.
There the Phantoms (14-0) will encounter Stone Bridge, which defeated Massaponax 23-20 Sunday. That game was delayed 24 hours by weather, a postponement that allows Sexton and his staff to caravan north to Ashburn on a scouting junket.
Stone Bridge certainly will look familiar. The Phantoms lost to the Bulldogs in the 2007 state semis — Phoebus is unbeaten since — and avenged the defeat in last year's semis.
"We have to get better," Sexton said. "We have to get a lot better if we're going to bring home the trophy."
Phoebus is 4-0 in state-title games. But none of those teams produced drama like this bunch.
Saturday was the Phantoms' fourth victory by three points or fewer this season, a jarring contrast to 2008, when they pitched nine shutouts and outscored opponents by a preposterous 720-53.
Think of it this way: Phoebus needs to score 231 points in the championship game to match last season's total.
"You like living on the edge, don't you?" I asked Sexton.
"No," he laughed. "I don't."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.