When Porter Ridge High football coach Blair Hardin walked into school Monday morning, he could feel the sadness throughout the building.
After reaching the state final for the first time, and building up all manner of goodwill throughout the community, Porter Ridge lost 42-16 to Scotland County in the N.C. 4A championship game Saturday night at Wake Forest.
The game was much closer than that. Porter Ridge was in position to take a 23-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but a reverse was called back for holding. That play, if it stood, would've given the Pirates the ball near the Scotland County goal line.
But after the penalty, Porter Ridge threw an interception. A few plays later, the Fighting Scots threw an 82-yard touchdown pass on third-and-9.
When Porter Ridge got the ball back, Scotland County defensive lineman Kris Tyndall sniffed out a screen pass, intercepted it and returned it 24 yards for a score. Suddenly, instead of being ahead by two, the Pirates were down 35-16.
And that's why the Porter Ridge family was a little sad Monday. The Pirates, 28-2 the past two years, had gotten to the big game in the seventh year the school has existed, and they had a legitimate chance to win it.
"We knew we had opportunities to be there at the end," Hardin said, "and we missed them. But it's a happy sadness because people are so happy with the accomplishments the kids made."
Porter Ridge has been to the past two N.C. 4A Western Regional championship games and won three Southern Carolina 4A championships in a row. The Pirates haven't lost a regular-season game since November 2009. Next year, eight starters will be back on defense and five on offense. Quarterback Lee McNeill and star receiver Jordan Oakley will graduate, but the junior varsity was 9-1 and won a league title. The middle school team, which runs Hardin's offense and defense, is enjoying similar success.
A powerhouse is brewing in Indian Trail.
"We're excited about where we are," Hardin said. "I think our best is yet to come."
Credit for Rock Hill South Pointe's second state title in three years has to go to its defense. Bluffton had scored less than 42 points once this season and was averaging 56.2. South Pointe forced three turnovers in a 42-27 win Saturday night in the S.C. 3A championship game. It was South Pointe's sixth season of varsity football.
After watching Greensboro Page win its first state title since 1986, I wondered how this team had beaten Mallard Creek and Butler on back-to-back weeks in the N.C. 4AA quarterfinals and semifinals. I didn't see either game but was surprised Butler lost a 26-6 lead and Mallard Creek lost a 19-7 advantage to the state champion Pirates.
Page isn't as big or athletic as Butler and Mallard Creek, and while Page quarterback James Summers is special, both Mallard Creek and Butler have players of similar talent, and more of them. Maybe it's like CarolinaPreps.com editor Chris Hughes told me in the press box: "Greensboro Page just wanted it more."
Scotland County had been getting mentioned by a lot of high school people in the know as the best overall team in the state. I wouldn't say that after watching the Scots beat Porter Ridge - I think Page is - but the Scots' team speed is impressive and they had the same kind of "want to" as Page did.
A lot of people will point to Scotland County's 82-yard pass from Kwashaun Quick to Travis Wall with 7 minutes, 31 seconds left as the biggest play of the game. It came on third-and-9 with Scotland County ahead 21-16. Porter Ridge looked like it would get the ball back in good field position. The pass was fit in between several defenders and was beautiful to watch.
But the biggest play to me unfortunately was an officials' call. On the previous possession, Porter Ridge had taken possession at Scotland County's 36 after an interception. Porter Ridge ran a reverse to Scotland County's 2, but the play was called back for holding. On replay, I couldn't find the infraction, which doesn't mean it didn't happen.
I thought the officials were too active during the N.C. 4A and 4AA championship games. There were 17 combined penalties in the 4A final, but it seemed they always marred key plays. Maybe the teams were committing infractions to spring big plays, but too often those of us in the press box were throwing our arms in the air to see a big play end only to be followed by a yellow flag on the artificial turf.
I hadn't been to Wake Forest's field since the renovations. It's an amazing place to watch a game. The new press box is amazing and the big replay screen is out of this world. It was amazing to watch the SEC championship game between the 4AA and 4A finals on such a clear, beautiful HD screen.