Two is certainly not the favorite number these days for anyone on Polk County Middle’s football squad.
The Wolverines suffered their second consecutive two-point loss on Thursday, a heartbreaking 14-12 setback in the final home game of the season at Utz Field.
Sam Rhein’s 75-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 2:11 remaining gave Polk Middle hope of at least forcing overtime. But a bobbled handoff spoiled the Wolverines’ 2-point conversion attempt, and Rugby successfully converted a third-and-18 in the final minutes to prevent Polk from getting another possession.
“I gotta give the guys credit,” said Polk Middle head coach Ethan Edwards. “They fought as hard as you could ever ask a team to fight.
“We’re still plagued with little mistakes that add up to the big things. We earn a turnover down here close, and we mishandle the ball a few times and end up with a safety. It’s unfamiliar territory for a lot of these kids to be down there with their heels against the goal line. I don’t know if that created extra pressure or what, but we gave up the safety there.”
The safety and succeeding touchdown gave Rugby (2-3) an early 8-0 lead. Polk Middle sliced that lead to two on R.J. Simpson’s 5-yard touchdown run with 3:14 left in the first half, but couldn’t convert the 2-point attempt and trailed 8-6 at intermission.
The Wolverines (0-5) held Rugby out of the end zone on two drives inside the Polk 30 in the second half, but committed a turnover following the second of those stops. That led to a Rugby touchdown run with 2:25 showing on the clock that actually didn’t prove a bad thing for Polk – the Raiders might well have run the clock out without giving the ball back to the Wolverines.
Instead, Polk stopped Rugby’s 2-point try and the Raiders kicked deep to Rhein, who raced up the middle, broke a tackle at midfield and outran two Rugby defenders to the end zone.
“I know they’ve got to kick it off deep short on time, and we’ve run the ball back well a couple of times already,” Edwards said. “I knew we had a shot if they would kick it deep. And they did and we took advantage of it.
“(Rhein) had never run a kickoff back before. So I was happy for him to get to do that and it put us in a position to tie the game up and do something there.”
The two late stops were indicative of a Polk Middle defense that had numerous big plays. The long touchdown run, though, also tied in to a theme that has haunted the Wolverines throughout the season.
“Defensively, we played pretty well today,” Edwards said. “A couple of times, we had a guy and we’re about to get off the field, and we let the guy escape a tackle. It’s the little things there that just add up to be a big deal.
“It just hurts when two weeks in a row, you lose by two. I’m just really proud of the way that fought toward the end. But once again, it was little mistakes that just added up to be game losers.”
Polk Middle concludes its regular season next Thursday, traveling to Hendersonville Middle. With a win, the Wolverines would earn a postseason game. A loss would end Polk’s season.