Just as they have for the past 30 years, Carroll County football fans had a vested interest in Virginia Tech football on Saturday.
But instead of rooting for the Hokies, where Carroll County’s favorite son Frank Beamer served as the head coach from 1987 until his retirement last season, many locals were doing the unthinkable and rooting for the opponent – the Liberty Flames and their starting left guard, Lucas Holder, a 2013 graduate of Carroll County High School.
The irony was not lost on Holder, who grew up attending “at least 40” home games at Virginia Tech, where his brother, Morgan, is pursuing his third degree from the school, a doctorate. But while the familiar refrains of Enter Sandman pumped 66,000 Hokies into a crazed frenzy Saturday, there was no intimidation for Holder or the Liberty Flames, which play in the lower division FCS. In fact it was quite the opposite, as the 6-4, 295-pound Holder could not keep a smile off his face as the trademark Metallica tune blared before the start of the season opener for both teams.
“It was surreal. Obviously it’s a dream come true. It was a little different than what I would have imagined it to be growing up,” Holder said of playing in Lane Stadium. “It’s just a blessing to play at this level and I am very grateful. I don’t take it for granted and I am happy to be where I am at. I am very thankful. I am proud to be from Carroll County. I am proud to be from Hillsville and I try to represent that blue-collar, hard-work farmer mentality every time I play. Hopefully it shows.”
It was certainly obvious Saturday. While Liberty would eventually wear down against the bigger and faster Hokies in a 36-13 loss, the Flames went toe-to-toe with one of college football’s most successful programs for the majority of the first half. Following a pair of Virginia Tech fumbles, Liberty took a 13-10 lead early in the second quarter after Alpha Jalloh scored on a 71-yard fumble return. Holder’s team maintained that lead until the Hokies scored a pair of touchdowns in the last 3:31 of the first half to begin to pull away.
“We were in there and it’s unfortunate. When you play FBS schools they have more depth and you can’t shoot yourself in the foot, which is what what we did. We have a young team and that’s not an excuse,” Holder said. “I expect us to have a great week next week but hats off to Tech. They are a big, fast, athletic team, but I feel like if we would have executed the way we are capable of it would have been a different outcome.”
While Liberty’s offense struggled to get much going against Tech’s traditionally stellar defense, Holder played a whale of a game in his first start at left guard. Starting the first five games of the 2015 season at center, the Carroll alum suffered a season-ending injury against Georgia State last year. He returned with a vengeance at a new position Saturday. While a youthful Liberty offensive line committed eight false start penalties, Holder anchored the unit, more than holding his own against Virginia Tech starting defensive tackle Woody Baron and talented backups such as Ricky Walker and Trevon Hill.
As sports reporters almost always focus on the skill positions, this untrained offensive line eye only witnessed Holder get beat once all day Saturday. The rest of the time he more than held down his spot against a talented ACC defensive line. Perhaps his only miscue on the day was a personal foul penalty for what was whistled as a chop block in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously there are some areas where I have to improve, every area honestly. Offensive line is such a technical position, it’s a position you never are going to do things 100 percent right. Today I felt like I did decent,” Holder said. “My game plan was to come out and do what I know how to do, focus on the little things and not have any penalties. Unfortunately I had a personal foul on an in-the-box cut block, but overall I thought I did decent.”
Admittedly, Holder was being humble in that assessment. But perhaps that comes from his equal success off the field. Named to the Big South Conference Presidential Honor Roll in 2015, the fourth-year junior in terms of football eligibility has actually already graduated from Liberty University with an undergraduate degree in government. He is currently enrolled at the Lynchburg institution as a graduate student pursuing a masters’ degree in Public Policy: Public Administration. The Hillsville native has plans to finish his masters in December before starting on a second masters’ degree with a goal to ultimately attend law school.
“He’s a very intelligent young man,” Liberty head coach Turner Gill said.
Lucas is the biological son of Rick and Susan Holder of Hillsville. But like Beamer, as Holder’s strong support from the locals on social media Saturday proved, he’s also well on his way to being a favorite son of Hillsville.
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN