RONDA – This, this is what Bruce Ollis waited for all season.
Not just Polk County’s 33-16 win Friday night over East Wilkes in the opening round of the state 1AA playoffs, a victory that perhaps came easier than many expected against a seven-win Cardinal squad.
But the manner of the win, the way the Wolverines controlled the line of scrimmage, forced turnovers and capitalized upon them, ran and threw the ball. That’s what Ollis had hoped to see since the Wolverines lined up for the first time way back in August.
“That’s the football team tonight I felt like we could be all year long,” Ollis said. “We played a quality team and we came out with a victory.”
The win, the first time this season Polk County has triumphed in back-to-back outings, moves the Wolverines (4-8) into the second round next week at North Rowan (9-2). The Falcons, whom Polk County defeated 30-22 in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, had a bye Friday, with some of the players and coaches in attendance in Ronda.
They saw a game that turned in a snap for Polk County.
The Wolverines held a 13-8 lead late in the second quarter when East Wilkes lined up to punt from the Polk 48. The snap, though, sailed far over the head of punter Dakota Rouse, with Polk County gaining possession at the Cardinals 27 with 1:07 left.
A penalty pushed Polk back to the 32, but a 30-yard Avery Edwards pass to Ryan Heider moved the Wolverines to the 2, Heider dragging a defender for the final five yards or so. Polk scored a play later with 17 seconds left on an Edwards 1-yard run, with Matias Akers adding the extra point for a 20-8 advantage.
“We felt like going into the ballgame that we might get a bad snap after seeing a few bad snaps on film,” Ollis said. “We hadn’t seen one on a punt.
“With us being able to punch it in before the half, no doubt momentum shifted to our side. It gave the kids a lot of momentum going into the half.”
East Wilkes (7-5) then came out of the locker room and fumbled on its first drive of the third quarter, Daniel Ruff’s recovery giving Polk possession at the Cardinal 44. The Wolverines needed three plays from there to score, with Edwards running an option to the left from the 29, cutting upfield for a few yards before pitching wide to Bryce Jergenson, who covered the remainder of the distance to the end zone. Akers added the extra point to make it 27-8 with 9:15 left in the third.
The Cardinals pulled within two scores early in the fourth period as Garrett Vernon swept around left end for a 13-yard touchdown scamper, set up by a Polk County fumble at the 23. Vernon also caught the 2-point conversion to make it 27-16 with 8:46 remaining.
East Wilkes then forced Polk County to punt on its ensuing drive, but the Cardinals were flagged for roughing Polk punter Luke Sellers, allowing the Wolverines to keep the ball. Polk soon found the end zone as Edwards lofted a perfect 28-yard strike to Evan Miller in the right corner of the end zone with 4:01 remaining for the final margin.
“it’s a great feeling after having a year where expectations were very high to come away with a victory in the playoffs,” Ollis said. “We were able to come out and play with a lot of enthusiasm and confidence in the second half. We played like a confident football team.”
While East Wilkes had some success through the air, with quarterback Caedon Howell finishing 10-of-16 for 138 yards, the Wolverines held standout running back Jayveon Ross in check, with Ross gaining just 44 yards on 18 carries.
“We made a lot of four- and five-man gang tackles on him,” Ollis said. “The defense really stepped up. They offered a lot of problems with the big back, wideouts who were very talented and a quarterback who was slippery. I feel like we were able to control the game upfront.
“We never let the back get out in the open and really hurt us. That’s the difference in us playing so-so and us playing well.”
Polk County took a 7-0 lead on its first drive, with Lukas Tipton scoring on a 9-yard run, only to have East Wilkes immediately answer as Howell’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Sean Sidden and two-point conversion gave the Cardinals an 8-7 lead with 3:16 left in the first quarter.
Polk County responded with a nine-play, 62-yard drive, highlighted by a 32-yard Heider pass reception, to take a 13-8 lead on Cameron Blackwell’s 1-yard run at the 11:16 mark of the second period.
East Wilkes followed Blackwell’s score with a long drive, but the Wolverines stopped a fourth-and-goal play from the 4 a yard shy of the end zone, preserving their lead before they widened it just prior to half.
Jergenson rushed for 72 yards on six carries to lead Polk’s ground game, which finished with 223 yards. Edwards was 4-for-9 passing for 109 yards and a touchdown.