Polk Middle fullback Zalen McCraw had a key 60-yard touchdown run for the Wolverines in Thursday's win

Champion finish: Polk Middle defense makes late stop to secure East Division crown

This time, Polk County Middle’s defense delivered late to ensure a nail-biter of a victory.

And the Wolverines clinched a championship in the process.

Polk Middle stopped a late Rugby Middle possession Thursday to hand the Rebels a 20-16 defeat in a Blue Ridge Conference East Division battle at Utz Field.

The win, the Wolverines’ third in four games by four points or less, secured at least a share of the BRC East Division title for Polk Middle (4-1), who concludes its regular season next week at Hendersonville Middle.

Only Brevard Middle can potentially tie Polk Middle in the East standings, and the Wolverines defeated the Blue Devils earlier this season to own the tiebreaker.

“That’s nice. I told the guys that doesn’t happen a lot,” said Polk Middle head coach Ethan Edwards of the East crown. “We won the conference three years ago, and some of those guys were here today to watch.

“It’s always nice to win something in a short season like we have. It seems like if you stumble once in our division, you’re out of it. Fortunately our stumble came in a non-conference game (a season-opening 38-6 loss to Canton Middle).”

Polk Middle’s previous two close victories were decided by late offensive scores. Thursday it was the Wolverine defense stepping into the spotlight.

Polk County Middle’s Khalil Austin fights through Rugby’s offensive line to attempt to stop a Raider running play

Rugby (2-4) stopped a Polk Middle drive midway through the fourth quarter and took possession at its 33, looking to drive for the winning score. But Polk Middle’s defense had other ideas, and its effort along with a holding penalty left Rugby facing a fourth-and-18.

Whatever play the Raiders had in mind for fourth down remains a mystery – Polk’s Sawyer Huff charged into the backfield and grabbed the Rugby quarterback, forcing a hurried incomplete pass. The Wolverines took over with 2:39 left, picked up one first down and soon began to celebrate.

Polk took an early lead, recovering an onside kick to open the game and grabbing a 6-0 lead on a long Lorenzo Sanchez run. The Wolverines recovered Rugby fumbles on the Raiders’ next two drives and converted the latter of the two into points, with Sanchez snaring a 22-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Jackson with 6:30 left in the second period. Avery Hensley’s 2-point conversion pass to Sanchez gave Polk a 14-0 lead.

The Wolverines stopped a late Rugby scoring threat with another fumble recovery and seemed set to run out the clock. But on the final play of the first half, the Raider defense forced a turnover and scored with no time remaining to cut the Wolverine advantage to 14-8 at the half.

Polk didn’t need long to regain a double-digit edge. On the first play of the third quarter, fullback Zalen McCraw powered up the middle of the Rugby defense, bounced to the outside, shook off a couple of tacklers and raced to the end zone, the 60-yard run giving the Wolverines a 20-8 lead with 7:39 still left in the quarter.

“We got a big run from our fullback,” Edwards said. “It was good to see him do that. He’s done a great job for us (after moving from guard to fullback before the season) and it’s nice to see him break a long run.”

Rugby scored late in the third period to cut Polk’s margin to 20-16, but the Wolverine defense would make certain the Raiders got no closer.

“I’m proud of the defense,” Edwards said. “They forced a few turnovers in the first half and we didn’t capitalize on them like I hoped we would, but that did prevent them from having the ball, at least.

“I feel like these kids have shown a tremendous amount of resolve. We got embarrassed in that first game, but they’ve come back fighting. Everybody has come out with a positive attitude and they’ve worked hard.”

Polk Middle head coach Ethan Edwards and quarterback Aaron Jackson celebrate the Wolverines’ victory