North Rowan undoubtedly had Friday night the best player on W.J. Miller Field.
Not, though, the best team.
Contributions from all over, a comeback from a 16-point deficit, a key goal-line stand in the final minutes of the fourth quarter – Polk County used all of that and more to hand North Rowan a 30-22 defeat in the opening round of the state 1AA playoffs in G.M. Tennant Stadium.
One challenge conquered, an even bigger one next awaits the Wolverines (8-4) – a long road trip next Friday to face undefeated Mount Airy, the top seed in the 1AA West bracket.
It’s a journey the Wolverines will gladly make after earning their first playoff win since 2014.
“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had,” said Polk quarterback Avery Edwards, who threw for 174 yards and a touchdown. “Coming off two playoff losses, and a horrible one last year on the last play of the game (28-21 loss at Surry Central), this is just a great feeling.”
“Tell you what we did tonight. We beat a quality football team,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. “That’s a very talented team. That’s awfully rewarding for us.”
Fittingly for a unit that shut out North Rowan (8-4) in the second half, Polk County’s defense delivered a key stand in the waning minutes to preserve the win.
The game proved the final one for North Rowan senior Jaleel Webster, and no doubt defensive coordinators around the state are glad to hear it. The 5-6 Webster weaved his way to 308 yards of total offense – 181 rushing, 127 receiving and almost all of the Cavaliers’ total of 333 – and a pair of touchdowns.
It was Webster’s 40-yard catch-and-run on a 3rd-and-20 play that moved North Rowan to the Polk 3 late in the game, a saving shove out of bounds by Dillon Overholt the only thing that kept Webster from scoring on the play.
An incomplete pass and two Webster 1-yard runs up the middle left North Rowan facing 4th-and-goal at the 2. Reading the Polk defense, Cavalier quarterback Willis Mitchell opted to fake a handoff to Webster and keep the ball – only to immediately run into Polk linebacker Braden Miller. Bryson Seay followed and Mitchell eventually fell at the 4, giving Polk the ball with 3:48 remaining.
The Wolverines never gave it back, with Overholt making a key catch on 3rd-and-5 at the 9 and Dillon Knighton racing for 12 yards after the Wolverines fumbled the snap to give Polk a chance to line up in its victory formation, take a knee and celebrate.
“We pitched a shutout the second half,” Ollis said. “That’s probably the best defensive performance here in a number of years, with a football team as explosive as they are.”
That Polk would be in position to celebrate at night’s end seemed unlikely earlier in the evening. North Rowan scored on its first two possessions, both on long third-down plays by Webster.
The speedster took a swing pass from Mitchell and raced through the Wolverine defense for a 63-yard score on the opening drive of the game, then sprinted 55 yards on the Cavaliers’ second series to give North Rowan a 13-0 lead with 5:38 still remaining in the first period.
Polk County answered with a Luis Hernandez 25-yard field goal late in the first period, but a Wolverine turnover on their next drive gave the Cavaliers the ball at the Polk 8, and Mitchell tossed a 4-yard scoring pass to Quintous Smith to make it 19-3 with 8:25 left in the second period.
Polk had to punt on its next drive, but the Cavaliers muffed the catch, with giving the Wolverines the ball at the Rowan 46. Polk marched those 46 yards in seven plays, with Seay scoring from the 7 to make it a 19-9 game with 3:23 left in the half.
North Rowan responded with a quick drive and a 41-yard field goal by Jacob Young with 44 seconds left in the half for a 22-9 lead.
Young kicked all but one of his kickoffs on the evening into the end zone. The one he didn’t, following the field goal, fell to Elijah Sutton at the 7. Sutton shot up the middle of the field, shrugged off a tackler near the 35 and broke free, going 93 yards to the end zone. Hernandez added the extra point to make it 22-16 at the break.
“We caught lightning in the bottle right there before the half with the kickoff return,” said Ollis, noting the Wolverines saw on film that North Rowan might be susceptible to a middle return. “I told Elijah when we were coming off the field, you put us in position to win the football game. That energized our entire team.”
Polk County opened the third period with a 13-play, 80-yard drive that lasted almost six minutes, capped by a 1-yard Miller plunge. Hernandez added the point after to give the Wolverines their first lead of the game at 23-22.
North Rowan punted on its next possesion, and the Wolverines struck again. Facing second-and-eight at the 47, Polk quickly raced to the line and snapped the ball, with Markell Lipscomb faking an out route, then cutting upfield.
The North Rowan defender defending Lipscomb tried to hold him, missed and fell to the ground, leaving Lipscomb all alone. He caught the ball near the 15 and strolled into the end zone, giving Polk a 30-22 lead, after a Hernandez extra point, with 42 seconds left in the third period.
“We just set them up great. We were throwing the out the whole game,” Edwards said. “They bit on it, the man tripped and he was wide open.”
Sutton intercepted a Mitchell pass to stop the Cavaliers’ next drive, and North Rowan would get the ball just once more, its final possession that ended four yards short of a tying score.
Edwards finished 8-of-10 for his 174 yards, with Lipscomb catching four passes for 117 yards and Overholt catching four for 57. Seay rushed for 83 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown to lead Polk’s ground game. The Wolverines finished with 190 rushing yards and 364 total yards.
“Credit goes to a lot of players,” Ollis said. “It was a team win. Dillon Overholt catching the ball in the flat and Markell catching the deep ball. Avery had to overcome some early mistakes and he did that and bucked up.
“This ranks right up there with all the wins that we’ve had the joy of seeing. I’m awfully proud of this team.”