Polk County coaches reminded players, often, on Thursday afternoon to relax, that the team’s season-ending matchup against Hendersonville had no bearing on the Wolverines’ postseason plans.
The celebration that took place after a wild final three minutes showed how player and coach alike didn’t put much stock in that advice to not worry.
Styler Blackwell’s touchdown run with two seconds remaining lifted the Wolverines to a 20-12 victory, capping an undefeated regular season and sole possesion of the Blue Ridge Conference East Division championship.
Polk Middle (6-0) will open playoff action next Thursday at home against either Waynesville or Smoky Mountain. The BRC playoffs have been expanded this season to be two rounds, and thus should Polk win next week, the Wolverines would face the winner of the Macon Middle-Rugby Middle semifinal in the Oct. 20 championship game. That would also be played at Polk.
The undefeated regular season is the program’s first since 2013.
As bright sunlight turned to dusk Thursday, the defensive struggle that marked the first three quarters turned into chaotic offensive fireworks, with three touchdowns scored in the final 3:15 of game time.
Hendersonville opted to run a fake punt deep in its end of the field midway through the final quarter. Sawyer Huff made an open-field tackle to stop that attempt and give Polk possession of the ball at the Bearcat 16 with 4:42 remaining.
Polk drove the short field and scored with 3:15 to play on an 8-yard Zach McCraw run that gave the Wolverines a 12-6 lead. But Hendersonville (2-3) took over at the Polk 44 after a good kickoff return and quickly found the end zone, hitting a 26-yard touchdown pass with 1:54 remaining. Blackwell sliced into the backfield at the snap to thwart the 2-point conversion attempt and keep the score tied at 12-12.
The Wolverines then took over on their ensuing drive at their 29. Facing a third-and-4 at the 35, Polk lined up in its version of the swinging gate / water bucket formation, with Huff taking a direct snap from quarterback Brody Wilkins.
Polk’s intent was a pass to Wilkins, but he was covered, so Huff began to scramble. He broke what looked to be a sure tackle near the line of scrimmage, found open field and began to sprint, eventually racing 40 yards to the Bearcat 25.
McCraw followed with a 16-yard run to the 9, then picked up four more yards to the 5. Polk took a timeout with six seconds remaining.
Wilkins then handed off to Blackwell, who powered over the left side and dove into the end zone with those two precious seconds left on the clock. McCraw added the 2-point conversion.
“A gutsy effort,” said Polk Middle head football coach Ethan Edwards. “That’s a good football team. They’ve faced some adversity this year and they’ve lose some close ones. I felt like they played a good game and they had a good game plan.
“I felt like we did a good job controlling the ball and managing the clock. We stopped them twice early. That was huge. Our defense kept coming to the rescue.”
The Wolverine defense stopped Hendersonville’s first drive at the Polk 31, but a turnover on Polk’s first snap gave the Bearcats the ball at the Polk 27. Again, though, the Wolverine defense held, eventually stopping a fourth-down play at the 29.
Polk then put together a long scoring drive that ended with a short McCraw touchdown run with 3:52 left in the second quarter. The Wolverines ended the half with another fourth-down stop in their territory and took that 6-0 lead into the half.
The Bearcats then scored on their first drive in the third period on a 9-yard pass, but failed on the 2-point attempt, leaving the score at 6-6.
“We laid the ball on the ground on the first play, but then we stop them. Big momentum change there,” Edwards said. “They’ve been struggling with close games and teams scoring against them and haven’t had success. So I think, right there, if we take that (first) defensive stop and turn that into a long, driving score, I think we’re cruising more than we did today.
“But at the end of the day, we win the game. This is what these guys need to work on. Nothing is going to be easy from here on. When you come out on top, adversity is not a bad thing.”