BOONVILLE -The unexpected journey that has been Polk County’s football postseason came to an end Friday night.
A physical Starmount defense kept Polk County’s offense largely in check, paving the way for the Rams’ 21-7 victory in the third round of the state 1AA football playoffs.
Starmount (7-6) held Polk to its lowest point total since a mid-September loss to Pisgah, earning a spot in the West Regional final next week at home against East Surry. The Cardinals routed top seed Mount Airy 40-0 in their quarterfinal matchup.
Three straight road wins brought Polk County (5-9) to the third round with a chance to reach a regional final for the first time in school history. That the Wolverines left Boonville without that victory did nothing to mar the accomplishments that got them there in the first place.
“I’m so proud of these guys. I’m still smiling about that,” said Polk County head coach Bruce Ollis. ” Certainly we’re disappointed that we lost, but these young men came back and did a great job and played well and hopefully made Polk County proud.”
Polk County had a chance to score on the game’s opening possession, holding the ball for more than seven minutes and driving inside the Starmount 5 before settling for a 25-yard field goal attempt, which sailed wide. That represented Polk’s only real opportunity for points until the Wolverines put together a 65-yard drive to score with 6:12 left in the game on Bryson Seay’s 1-yard run.
Perhaps symptomatic of the Wolverines’ fortunes, the ensuing onside kick attempt after Seay’s score bounced off the helmet of a Starmount player – directly into the arms of a teammate.
“They were as physical up front as we were and nullified us just a bit,” Ollis said. “They played us really hard. I felt like they were going to take their good running back (Ethan Barnes), who had been playing linebacker early in the year and play him at linebacker. He was a difference maker early in the game. We didn’t really block him a lot.”
Starmount also tweaked its offensive script a bit, moving away from the run-heavy approach that helped the Rams rebound from an 0-4 start to the season. Starmount quarterback Trey Dezern looked to throw short and intermediate routes throughout the first three quarters, finishing the night 19-of-24 for 181 yards.
“We felt like they were going to throw the ball to the trip side in the flat, and that’s what they did, and we just didn’t defend it,” Ollis said. “Ninety percent of the throws we had charted for them were outside the hashmarks, and we were set up to stop it. The kid made great throws and they ran a little bit better route than our coverage was and made the play.”
The Rams scored early in the second period on Barnes’ 2-yard run, completing a drive of more than six minutes, but saw Polk County stop another scoring threat with 1:32 left in the half on Avery Edwards’ interception at the goal line.
The game, though, turned firmly in Starmount’s favor moments later as the Rams’ Nik Pardue intercepted a pass near the 30 and returned it to the Wolverine 2 with 28 seconds left. Barnes gained a yard, the timeout-less Rams quickly lined back up and Dezern plunged in on a 1-yard sneak with 9.8 seconds left. He then tossed a 2-point conversion to Max Swain to give the Rams a 14-0 lead and much-needed momentum.
“Giving up the score right before the half was tough,” Ollis said. “Probably should have been 6-0 at halftime and it’s probably a different game coming back.”
The two defenses dominated much of the third period until the Rams drove 65 yards in slightly more than five valuable minutes at the end of the third and early fourth quarters, scoring on Barnes’ 25-yard run with 9:53 remaining for a 21-0 edge.
Polk answered with its lone scoring drive, with Ryan Heider and Bryce Jergenson making key pass reception to lead to Seay’s short scoring run, but the Rams got the good bounce on the onside kick and ran out almost all of the final six minutes.
Barnes, who entered the game with more than 1,700 yards rushing on the season, gained 134 yards on 25 attempts, many of those in the final quarter and a half.
Mitchell Yoder rushed for 97 yards on six carries and Seay had 60 yards on 21 carries for Polk County.