REIDSVILLE — Broken hearted, but never broken in spirit.
So ended Polk County’s 2013 football season on Friday night, two yards short of possibly sending its 2A second-round playoff matchup with Reidsville into overtime after a determined, gritty fourth-quarter comeback. But those two yards proved elusive, allowing Reidsville to hang on for a 27-19 victory at Community Stadium.
As the Rams (11-2) ran the game’s final play and the teams met to exchange post-game handshakes, a gentle rain began to fall, helping to mask the tears of a crestfallen Wolverine squad and an emotional head coach Bruce Ollis.
“The effort was incredible,” Ollis said. “I can’t say enough about this group.”
The night began with much promise, Polk County (9-4) opening a 13-0 lead late in the first quarter. It unraveled in a nightmarish second quarter in which the Wolverines endured two fumbles, a blocked punt and the loss of senior quarterback Reece Schlabach, who suffered an ankle injury with less than two minutes remaining in the half. The maladies added up to a 20-13 halftime lead for the Rams and Schlabach on crutches for the final two quarters.
It got no better for Polk when fullback Jordan Smith injured his left arm midway through the third period (though he later returned, albeit limited by the injury). It grew worse when the Rams scored on the first play of the fourth quarter on a Jayron Rankin 23-yard run, giving Reidsville a 27-13 lead.
Down two scores, battered, on the road, the Wolverines then did exactly what anyone who watched them during their season-defining nine-game winning streak expected.
They fought back.
Taking over at their 45, the Wolverines moved to the Ram 30, fueled by a 22-yard scramble by sophomore Jamal Tanner, who took over quarterback duties for Schlabach. There, facing 4th-and-9, Ollis called perhaps the unlikeliest of calls, a hook-and-ladder. Anthony Carson caught Tanner’s pass and flipped the ball to a trailing Matt Darden. Barely a lateral, granted, but the play worked, Darden carrying the pitch to the 5. Tanner scored on the next play, and Polk trailed 27-19 with 9:55 remaining.
Reidsville gained four yards in three plays on its subsequent possession and punted, giving Polk the ball at its 25 with 7:46 remaining. The Wolverines mixed passes to senior Anthony Carson with Tanner runs in a steady drive to the Reidsville 28. There, facing third down, Carson made the final reception of his Wolverine career, and it was spectacular, diving toward the sideline to snare a Tanner pass with his fingertips, a defender draped on his back, before falling to the ground. The play gave Polk a first-and-goal at the 5.
Tanner carried to the 1 on first down. A bobbled snap cost Polk a yard and doomed the second-down play, and Tanner was dropped for no gain on third down, leaving Polk with fourth-and-goal at the 2 with 44 seconds left.
After a timeout, Tanner took the snap and rolled left, looking for Carson at the goal line. A Reidville defender separated the two, forcing Tanner to arch the pass higher to clear him. He did, but it landed just short of Carson’s reach. The game, the season, was over.
“I really admire the way they battled back,” Ollis said. “I think Reece is the best player in the conference, and when he went down, our kids bowed their backs and played hard for him.
“We had a chance at the end to score and go for two points and tie the game and go into overtime, and we’re awfully good in overtime.”
Polk County landed the first blow of the game, scoring on its third play following the opening kickoff when Schlabach found Tanner behind the Reidsville secondary for a 58-yard touchdown pass, giving Polk a 7-0 lead. The Rams then turned the ball over on their fourth play following the ensuing kickoff, Tyrone Miller recovering a Ram fumble at the 49.
The Wolverines, who dominated time of possession and number of plays, then ran 12 of them over the next 7:29, converting two third downs and a fourth down before Smith plunged into the end zone from a yard out. With 1:36 left in the first, Polk led 13-0.
And then came the second quarter.
The Rams scored on the period’s second play when sensational junior quarterback Devante Williams romped around right end for a 23-yard touchdown run. Polk then fumbled on its first play after the ensuing kickoff, and Williams this time rolled around the left side on the next play, evading a defender and scoring from 21 yards out. In 23 seconds, Reidsville scored two touchdowns, good for 13 points and a 13-13 tie.
Polk County then drove into Ram territory before fumbling again. Reidsville went three-and-out after the turnover and punted, but the Wolverines were soon forced to punt as well.
That kick, though, was blocked, with the Rams recovering at the 9. Williams scored from the three to give Reidsville a 20-13 edge with 2:18 left in the half.
“We made two turnovers when we could have put the game away,” Ollis said. “The blocked punt really hurt us. We gave them that score.”
Three plays later, Polk hurt even more. Fighting for a first down, Schlabach was wrapped up in a pile of defenders. The pile moved, but the senior Wolverine did not, writhing in pain while grabbing his ankle. He eventually was helped off the field, then watched the second half at one end of the Polk sideline on crutches. The extent of his injury was not immediately known.
Schlabach finished with 40 yards on 12 carries and was also 4-of-5 passing for 76 yards. Tanner ran for 81 yards on 22 carries and was 8-of-14 for 120 yards. Williams had 14 carries for 99 yards to lead Reidsville, who will host Lincolnton in next Friday’s third round.
Polk County, meanwhile, can hang its heads high after a season marked by a perfect run through the Western Highlands Conference and that nine-game victory streak.
“To come back after an 0-3 start to win nine games in a row and win the conference says a lot about their dedication to what we preach,” Ollis said. “They never gave up.”