COLUMBIA — Outside of the home team locker room Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium, Northwestern senior LaThomas Long stood among his teammates. There is nothing as unnerving as a group of teenagers just beaten in an important athletic contest, prayer-quiet and awkwardly avoiding eye contact with each other.
Long, his ears buried in a pair of headphones, unfortunately couldn't hide his faraway look.
It hurts to see tears in my teammates eyes, he said. We all wanted it, we worked so hard to get here.
The senior running back rushed for 133 yards and a touchdown for the Trojans Saturday in the 31-24 overtime loss to Greenwood, just a week after powering Northwestern into the state finals with a monster 155-yard rushing effort against Bluffton.
After an injury-riddled regular season, Long saved his best ball for the postseason in an effort to win the second state championship of his four years at Northwestern, and more importantly to him, one for his teammates.
It wasn't even for me, said Long. It was for our sophomores and juniors, man. In 2010 when I was a sophomore, they got one for me, and I wanted to get one for the ones coming up.
Long won his title in 2010, ironically a 42-10 win over Greenwood. That Trojan team was carried by a number of talented seniors, but Long, a sophomore then, more than chipped in, racking up 73 yards and a touchdown in the Trojans romp. It was the gratitude Long felt from that day that he sought to pay forward to the younger guys on this year's Northwestern squad, and the reason he felt he let his younger teammates down.
Coach Kyle Richardson didn't agree though.
Nah, he said when asked if he thought Long had failed the younger Trojans. The whole team played hard and everybody here was trying to win a championship. But at the end of the day, they're only gonna' give out one trophy.
Long had 79 yards by halftime. The Trojans called his number repeatedly against an opportunistic Greenwood defense that couldn't stop Northwestern's offense, but did force two critical interceptions. In the third quarter, Long capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to make it 17-16, after the Trojans' extra point misfired.
Richardson said Long's big day was just kind of take what we were seeing. He got hot there a couple of times. We didn't touch the ball as much in the second half as much as we would've liked.
That's because Greenwood dominated in the third and fourth quarters, notably with an epic 20-play, 10-minute drive that sapped the clock and left Northwestern trailing 24-16 with about three minutes left.
But Long picked up 17 yards on a short catch-and-run, and a 15-yard facemask penalty tacked on moved the Trojans deep into Eagles territory with time running short.
On a 3rd and 2 at the Greenwood 10, Long picked up four yards and a crucial first and goal. The Trojans took advantage, Mason Rudolph firing a dart to Dupree Hart for a 7-yard touchdown catch to make it 24-22. Long then skirted into the end zone on the two-point try to tie the game with a minute left, and ultimately send it to overtime.
I did everything I could to get in the end zone and get the game to overtime, said Long.
It wasn't hard to believe him. The senior running back couldn't have done much more in the game and against an undefeated Greenwood squad, his team couldn't have either, outside of a few crucial miscues.
I'm really proud of our guys for fighting to the end, Richardson said, a pair of shades no doubt shielding some bloodshot eyes. 12-3, there's a lot of teams across the state that would like to be 12-3 and playing in this game.
There's a lot of high school football players that would like to graduate with a state championship, something Long will do. The Trojans' No. 22 wanted to leave his younger teammates with a ring. Sadly, he could only leave them with some bittersweet advice.
I'm gonna' tell my guys, start working Monday.