MAIDEN – Maiden’s postgame huddle ended here Friday, and the Blue Devils began celebrating their way toward their locker room.
Linebacker Alec Hall veered away from the noise and walked over to a quiet group of Polk County players.
“You guys are amazing,” Hall said, full of sincerity. “You scored 33 points on us. You’re awesome.”
There are 256 football playoff teams this season in North Carolina, and 252 of them will see very good years, postseason-worthy years, end with a loss. Polk County will be among that group after its 68-33 setback Friday at Maiden in the opening round of the state 2A playoffs.
Seasons ended, careers ended, so no one on the Wolverines’ sideline felt all that awesome. In time they will, as Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis earnestly reminded Polk players in their postgame gathering. So much good happened this year, the past several years, and that’s what Ollis wanted the Wolverines to remember.
Still, he told his team, “Endings are tough. Very difficult.”
The scoreboard at Brown Stadium reflected how well the Blue Devil offense operated. Maiden (10-1) got five rushing touchdowns from Ben Gibbs and four touchdown passes from Wesley Thompson. North Carolina-bound receiver Chris Culliver proved as good as advertised and caught three of those scores, including a one-handed snare over a defender while falling to the turf. Maiden racked up almost 600 yards of total offense and earned a home date next week with Mount Pleasant.
But Polk County (5-6) fought from whistle to whistle. Maiden reserves wanted desperately to score again in the waning seconds, yet Polk County’s worn and weary defense still rose up and kept them from doing so, with long-time teammates Casey Beiler and Angus Weaver combining to tackle Maiden’s Josh Stover on that final play. And moments like that, rather than the final score, were what Ollis pointed to at game’s end.
“Our effort was great,” Ollis said. “We didn’t always make the tackle or the catch or every play, but I’m awfully proud of the way we got after it tonight.
“We made it interesting for a while. Really the score should have been 27-20 at halftime and it may have made them scurry around a bit more at halftime.”
A lengthy first half featured big plays from both sides. Thompson and Cuillver teamed for a 47-yard scoring pass on the game’s fourth play, and Polk responded with an 11-play, 61-yard drive ended in a Casey Beiler 2-yard run. Thompson answered with anothger 47-yard touchdown toss to Raheim Misher, and Maiden boosted the lead to 21-7 early in the second period.
Then came a wild flurry of two touchdowns in 32 seconds of game time – Beiler tossed a 45-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Keaundrae Green and Culliver answered with a long kickoff return to set up a Gibbs 25-yard score, keeping Maiden’s lead at 27-14 with 8:27 left in the half.
Two long Beiler completions to Antonio Simpson, who set a school single-season record for receiving yardage (1,092) during the game, set up a Beiler’s 1-yard scoring plunge with 6:41 remaining, cutting the deficit back to 27-20.
Polk finally stopped Maiden on its next drive, Weaver sacking Thompson and forcing a fumble that Kendall McEntyre recovered. But the Wolverines couldn’t move the ball and had to punt, and Maiden scored with 5.7 seconds left in the half for a 34-20 advantage at the break.
The third quarter was all Maiden – Thompson threw a pair of touchdown passes, Gibbs scored on a short run and the Devils forced three straight Polk punts. The Wolverines finally answered with a bit of trickery, Weaver’s 68-yard touchdown pass out of its water bucket formation to Karlen McEntyre, so alone down field that he had time to wait for the pass and stroll into the end zone. But Maiden quickly responded with another Thompson touchdown toss early in the fourth period to boost the lead back to 61-26.
Weaver then capped his stellar career with a 3-yard scoring run with 3:25 remaining. He finished the night with 92 yards rushing on 20 carries and ended his career with 4,620 yards on 609 carries, 58 rushing touchdowns, 65 total touchdowns and 402 total points. All of those are school records.
Beiler finished the night 12-of-23 for 221 yards. He ends his career with 4,105 passing yards on 281-of-527 attempts with 42 career TD passes. The attempts and touchdown passes are new school records.
Other seniors – Evan Jones, Vincent Twitty, Obed Najera, Gabe McGraw, Reilly Yoder, Bryson Owen and Colton Bradley.
Ollis embraced all of them as well as every other player, sharing a few words with each. Polk players and coaches lingered on the field as if they knew what stepping through the field gates meant.
Endings are tough.
“I’ve been blessed to coach, and I love these kids,” Ollis said. “Watching Angus Weaver play and Casey Beiler and all these other seniors that have been part of this program for four years.
“We fought to the end, and even had a goal-line stand there. We kept playing until the final whistle, and I think that’s the thing of which I’m proudest the most.”