High school football: Frustrating loss ends season for North

Published 1:34 am Saturday, November 24, 2018

By Mike London

SPENCER — Leading North Rowan by six points on the road with 2:51 remaining, Polk County’s Wolverines faced fourth-and-2 at the Polk 41-yard line.

Uncertain whether Polk would gamble or punt, North used a timeout. North head coach Ben Hampton knew that he would try for the first down if faced with that situation, but he wasn’t sure what was running through the mind of Polk head coach Bruce Ollis.

Ollis was conflicted. His head was telling him to punt, but his heart was telling him to go. Polk quarterback Avery Edwards, a big part of Polk’s playoff win at home against North Rowan a year earlier, cast a vote to go for it. Ollis stared at his offensive linemen. It would be on their broad shoulders.

“They were all nodding and saying they could get it,” Ollis said. “Our o-line came off the ball like a tidal wave all night.”

Fullback Bryson Seay, who missed most of this season with injury, got the call on the game’s decisive play. He barreled for 5 yards. He got the first down easily. Polk ran out the clock from there for a 13-7 victory over the Cavaliers. The loss ended another football season very early for Rowan County.

Based on seeds, it was a major upset. Polk (5-8) was seeded 11th. North (9-3) was seeded third in the West bracket of the 1AA state playoffs.

“But at this time of year, it’s not who’s got the best team,” Ollis said. “It’s who plays the best.”

Polk County played better on Friday.

Polk already had won a challenging road game at East Wilkes, while North was enjoying a bye. And the reality was that the Cavaliers hadn’t faced a tough football team since it ran into a North Stanly buzz-saw in mid-October. Polk’s rugged linemen won the line of scrimmage most of the night. Polk’s backs ran with ferocity.

Most of what North got offensively was based on back Malcolm Wilson improvisational skills, doing what he does, bouncing off tacklers, changing direction and creating explosive plays. He got hit in the backfield at least a half-dozen times, but he was hard to keep down.

“Wilson is one of the best chicken salad players I’ve ever seen,” Ollis said. “By that, I mean he can make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. There’s absolutely nothing there, but he still makes something out of it. He’s a special player. There’s a reason he came in with 1,700 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards.”

North was in a state of stunned disbelief following the game.

“We never had to punt,” Hampton said, shaking his head “I don’t know how many times it’s ever happened that a team didn’t punt and still lost.”

North didn’t punt, but there was plenty of self-destruction. North had a chance to blow away Polk County early but failed to do so. In the second half, the problem was turnovers. North stopped itself three times with an interception and two lost fumbles.

“Turnovers at the worst possible times,” Hampton said. “And penalties at the worst possible times.”

Polk won the toss and wanted the ball against a team that boasted six shutouts. Polk never achieved a clean handle on the kickoff. North’s Zay Davis made the recovery at the Polk 11, as North fans roared.

After a couple of disastrous plays, North moved in reverse to the 21, but on third-and-20, North QB Willis Mitchell found Logan Stoner wide open in the middle of the end zone. The PAT made it 7-0.

“We spotted them a touchdown,” Ollis said. “But then we pitched a shutout for the next 46 minutes.”

Benjamin Caldwell made sure Polk County’s first offensive possession went nowhere, and North was quickly in position to go up 14-0 after Jaharion Graham jet-sweeped for 36 yards to set up first-and-goal at the Polk 10.

North got as far as the 4, but Seay, who also played defensive end, broke through to sack Mitchell on fourth down. That’s where the tide turned.

North’s defense had Polk in a second-and-27 mess, but Edwards threw — and completed — his first pass of the night to keep an 86-yard drive alive. Mitchell Yoder finished that march with a 13-yard scoring jaunt, and it was 7-all early in the second quarter.

Unfazed, North came right back. But on fourth-and-2 at the Polk 15, Wilson took a handoff. Instead of a hole he found Polk middle linebacker Lukas Tipton waiting for him. The Cavaliers turned it over on downs.

Polk kept the ball for most of the second quarter, content to crunch for 4 yards at a time. Polk reached the red zone, but North cornerback Spencer Everhart intercepted a pass in the end zone to keep it 7-all at the break.

North would be getting the ball to start the second half. Both coaches knew that possession would go a long way toward determining a winner.

“We knew we needed to get points and we knew we needed to keep our defense off the field for a while,” Hampton said. “When your defense has to keep playing seven or eight minutes at a time, you’re in trouble.”

North achieved ideal field position on the kickoff return and was charging at the Polk 38 after three snaps. On the fourth snap, Wilson fumbled. Logan Conner made the recovery for Polk.

Then Polk kept the ball, kept it and kept it some more, banging 67 yards on 12 running plays for the TD that would prove decisive. Freshman Bryce Jergenson got the six points from the 6 with 4:34 left in the third quarter. The PAT kick failed, leaving Polk clinging to a 13-7 lead the rest of the way.

But this has been an amazing Polk team. On Oct. 25, Polk was 2-8 and had allowed 113 points in brutal, back-to-back blowout losses to Mitchell and Mountain Heritage. Making the playoffs seemed like a dream, but Polk won at Madison County in the season finale and got in. Now Polk owns two playoff victories.

“Resilience, perseverance, all those 50-cent words that you want to use apply,” Ollis said. “For a while there, things didn’t look so good.”

Leading by six, Polk was one defensive miscommunication, one slip-up against an explosive team from losing, but the Wolverines never made a big mistake.

North tried to respond to Jurgenson’s TD and reached the Polk County 30, but a Mitchell pass ricocheted off a receiver and was picked off by Polk’s Trey Thompson.

As the fourth quarter neared, North’s defense got a stop with the help of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Wilson ripped off a 14-yard gain but had to leave the game for the rest of a pivotal series. On the third-and-4 at the Polk 30, Mitchell lost a fumble, the third straight North possession to end with a turnover.

“Earlier in the year, those turnovers were going the other way,” Ollis said. “Now we’re getting some, creating some.”

There was 10:23 remaining when Mitchell fumbled, and the way Polk was possessing the ball, things were getting desperate for the Cavaliers.

With the clock nearing seven minutes. North got the ball. Wilson returned to the field. Everyone sensed it was now or never.

Mitchell scrambled for 13 yards into Polk territory. A holding call pushed the Cavaliers back, but on second-and-21 from the Polk 40, Wilson made an amazing play. He grabbed a short pass and surged through a throng of tacklers on the left sideline. Then he veered right, sprinting all the way across the field. He was finally knocked down near the 1-yard line. He got up sensing victory was close at hand, but there was a flag on the ground at the 25. It was another holding penalty, and the Cavaliers, their frustration mounting, didn’t have much left. On third-and-13, Mitchell fired toward Stoner, but they didn’t connect. On fourth down, Mitchell over-shot 6-foot-5 Denerio Robinson, and the Cavaliers were stopped.

There was still 4:54 left to play, but North wouldn’t see the ball again.

The moment of truth came on that fourth-and-2 at the Polk 41.

“They were hard to stop,” North linebacker Nautica Patterson said. “We tried to strip the ball, but we didn’t have any success.”

Polk plays next at No. 2 seed Starmount. The Wolverines will be underdogs again, but they’ve embraced that role.

Rowan teams are 0-7 in the playoffs the last two seasons and all six Rowan schools have a playoff losing streak of at least three games.

“It’s a heartbreaking way to end the season because we had so many opportunities,” Hampton said. “But this has been a great group of guys, a great group of seniors. We appreciate everything they did.”