Polk Middle's Efrain Rivera drops a Waynesville runner with an open-field tackle during the second half of Thursday's game

Polk County Middle’s dream start quickly turned into a playoff nightmare.

The Wolverines had an almost-perfect first half of the first quarter, quickly building a 16-point advantage. But Waynesville Middle largely controlled the rest of the afternoon at Utz Field, taking a 38-16 victory in a Blue Ridge Conference playoff semifinal matchup.

Waynesville Middle (5-1) advances to the BRC championship game against West Division champion Macon Middle, which defeated Rugby Middle 16-6 on Thursday.

Polk Middle (6-1) will get a rematch with Rugby on Thursday at home in the BRC third-place game. The Wolverines defeated the Raiders 20-18 earlier this season. That game will kick off at 5 p.m.

The formula that worked so well throughout Polk’s unbeaten regular season – solid defense, unstoppable rushing attack – looked to be the Wolverines’ ticket to the final early Thursday. Polk took the opening kickoff and drove 46 yards in just three plays, with Styler Blackwell’s 36-yard run moving the ball to the Waynesville 3.

Polk coaches and players thought officials signalled a touchdown and lined up to run a 2-point conversion play, which Sawyer Huff successfully completed. Then officials clarified that Blackwell was pushed out-of-bounds at the 3 and Huff’s run was a live play for a touchdown. So Polk lined up in the same formation and Huff again reached the end zone for the 2-point conversion and an 8-0 lead with just 54 seconds gone off the clock.

The Wolverine defense stopped Waynesville on its next drive and took possession on the Polk 38. On second down, Blackwell took a handoff, burst through a huge hole in the middle of the line and raced 60 yards to the end zone. The 2-point conversion made it 16-0, Polk, with 4:19 still left in the first period.

Polk County Middle’s Styler Blackwell races past the Waynesville defense on his way to the end zone during the first quarter of Thursday’s game

And them momentum apparently meandered across the field to the Waynesville sideline. Ty Walker’s 19-yard run on a fourth-down play and Walker’s 2-point conversion made it 16-8 early in the second quarter. A fumble gave the Mountaineers the ball at the Polk 15, and Walker scored again from 6 yards out, adding the 2-point conversion to even the score with 5:17 left in the half.

Following a Polk punt, Walker added his third touchdown of the half, scoring from the 6 with six seconds left to give Waynesville a 24-16 lead at the break.

“I think we got a little too loose there,” said Polk Middle head coach Ethan Edwards. “We scored two touchdowns on our first five plays from scrimmage. Big runs, just big gaping holes, outrunning them down the field. I knew coming in we were more athletic than then and we showed that.

“We gave up a score and we got wide-eyed there, then we turned the ball over and let them score again and it’s an oh-crap moment. Momentum is a huge thing, and I feel like they got us on our heels there.”

Waynesville took the opening kickoff of the second half and drive 65 yards for another score, this one on a short touchdown pass midway through the period. The Mountaineers capped the scoring early in the fourth period.

After its early success, Polk’s offense was largely kept in check as the Mountaineers clogged holes and kept Blackwell and Zach McCraw from finding their usual room to run.

“They’ve got a tough football team, and I don’t want to take anything away from them,” Edwards said. “I feel like we were the faster, more athletic team. But they knocked us around and they controlled the clock and they controlled the line of scrimmage most of the game, and that proved to be the difference.”

Polk Middle’s Christian Roman (55) and Sam Walton set to block a Waynesville lineman at the start of a second-half play in Thursday’s game