WAYNESVILLE – Heartbroken, Polk County Middle School’s football team huddled one final time Thursday on the artificial turf of C.E. Weatherby Stadium, then walked off the field toward the applause of an appreciative Wolverine crowd.
Well deserved and well received, the cheers just weren’t the ones the Wolverines hoped to hear at game’s end.
Waynesville Middle School stopped a late Polk County drive to hold on and win a battle of undefeated teams, taking a 24-22 victory in the Blue Ridge Middle School Conference championship game in Waynesville.
The Wolverines, one day, will look back on the best season in school history with fondness, recalling the memories of a perfect regular season capped by a remarkable double-overtime win at Hendersonville. Time will wipe away the tears that many shed as the clock struck zero, setting off a celebration on the Waynesville side of the field.
Time, though, the Wolverines will need.
“This has been a great season,” said Polk head coach Billy Alm. “These kids came out here and they fought like warriors. They gave it their all, and the chips didn’t fall our way.
“We had some key mistakes in our pass coverage and we had some key mistakes on offense. We put the ball on the ground, and that’s what hurt us. We beat ourselves.”
And, yet, Polk County (7-1) very nearly engineered a comeback in the game’s final minutes.
Waynesville (8-0) took its two-point lead with 5:28 remaining on a 77-yard touchdown pass from Grayson Perkins to Sam Messer. As they did all day, Polk stopped the 2-point conversion to keep the margin at two points.
Taking the kickoff at its 44, Polk moved to the 41 in two plays. There, D.J. Twitty tossed a swing pass to Dillion Overholt, and Overholt knifed and weaved his way to the Waynesville 12.
A personal foul penalty, though, moved Polk back to the 27, where three plays later the Wolverines faced a fourth-and-6 at the 23. After two timeouts, Twitty took the snap and pitched to Overholt, but Waynesville’s Dylan Shuler broke into the backfield and grabbed Overholt almost as soon as he took the toss, giving the Mountaineers the ball with 2:45 remaining. Waynesville ran five straight plays to run out the clock.
“Polk has an outstanding football team,” said Waynesville head coach Josh Gibbs. “I told our kids that this was going to be a fourth quarter football game. That team was undefeated for a reason.
“I’m just really proud of our kids. They showed a lot of heart and a lot of faith and I feel very, very blessed.”
Waynesville trailed 14-12 at the half, but opened the third period with a 13-play, 49-yard drive that took more than five minutes off the clock. The Mountaineers converted a pair of third downs and a fourth down before Bailey Ewart powered in from two yards out to give Waynesville an 18-14 lead.
Polk then fumbled on its second offensive play after the ensuing kickoff, and the Mountaineers began another time-killing march that lasted into the fourth period. Then, facing fourth-and-8 at the Polk 31, the Mountaineers looked to pass into the left flat, but Overholt read the play perfectly, intercepting the toss at the 26, racing past the Polk bench, evading one tackler and sprinting to the end zone. Twitty converted the 2-point attempt to give Polk a 22-18 lead with 6:08 left in the game.
Overholt also scored the game’s first touchdown as Polk took the opening kickoff and drove 51 yards in six plays. A 31-yard Twitty run moved the Wolverines into the red zone before Overholt raced around right end for a 7-yard score. The 2-point conversion gave Polk an 8-0 lead with 4:34 left in the first quarter.
Waynesville answered with a long kickoff return to the Polk 13, then scored on an Ewart 5-yard run, cutting the deficit to 8-6. Polk fumbled on its first play following the kickoff, giving Waynesville the ball at midfield. The Mountaineers converted two fourth-and-1 situations on an 11-play drive that ended with Austin Brosius scoring from two yards out with 5:53 left, giving Waynesville a 12-8 lead.
Back came Polk, marching 67 yards to retake the lead. Twitty teamed with Peyton Kemmerlin on a 38-yard pass play to move to the Polk 17, then hit Braden Miller on a 10-yard scoring play with 58.7 seconds left. The 2-point try failed, leaving Polk up 14-12.
An Arnie Twitty interception gave Polk the ball at its 24 with 36.3 seconds left. The Wolverines opted for their hook-and-lateral play, and Overholt took the pitch down to the Waynesville 18. With time running out and facing 4th-and-7 at the 15, Twitty found Miller open in the middle of the field, the play ending at the 2 with 2.5 seconds left. But Polk was unable to run another play before the clock ran out, keeping the margin at 14-12.
Unofficially, Ewart ran for 82 yards on 22 carries to lead Waynesville’s offense. Perkins was 6-of-14 for 143 yards. For Polk, Twitty ran for 37 yards and was 8-of-13 passing for 172 yards. The Wolverines finished with 57 yards rushing.
“We just lined up and played our base defense and allowed our kids to make plays,” Gibbs said.
Make plays, they did. And so did Polk County in a game worthy of two undefeated squads battling for a conference title.
“It just wasn’t our day,” Alm said.