By Mac Knefely Down 35-20 to host Fort Walton Beach (Florida) with less than a quarter remaining, things looked bleak for the Clover High Blue Eagles.
Bleak to the average fan, that is.
After traveling several hours from South Carolina to visit the Florida-based Vikings, a close loss may have been a moral victory. But for senior leaders Aaron Miller and Davontay Brown and the rest of the team, the challenge of a late rally was there for the taking.
With heart and perseverance, Clover found the will to win, as Miller punched in a 1-yard score on third down with 17.4 seconds remaining, then ran left side before just crossing the goal line on a two-point conversion to give the Eagles a 36-35 edge. Miller fittingly iced the game with a leaping interception one play later to give Clover head coach Jet Turner his 100th victory, and one of his most proud moments at the helm of the Blue Eagles.
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“It will be a nice ride back home, I promise you that,” Turner said. “This one ranks right up there (amongst my most exciting victories). It was a great high school football game. We just made one more play in the end. It was a total team effort. Our kids competed, and they (FWB) were a great team. It took all phases of our game to win tonight.”
It was business as usual at the start for the run-first, pass-seldom Blue Eagles, who improved to 6-0 on the season. After forcing a three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, Zavian Sherer and Brown quickly moved the ball to the Viking 19 on consecutive runs. With the ball at the 3-yard line, an offsides penalty led to a 1-yard score by Miller, and Trey Childress notched the point after to give Clover a 7-0 lead with 5:09 left in the first quarter. On the play, Miller appeared to be stuffed at the line, but managed to lean right to reach the ball into the end zone.
The Vikings took just five plays to find paydirt as Steve Strano connected with Robert Willis on a slant pass over the middle at the 15, and Willis took it the rest of the way for the touchdown with 7:19 left in the first.
After the Blue Eagles turned the ball over on downs at their own 40, Fort Walton quickly took advantage as Strano hit Dale Smith over the middle on third down, and Smith raced to the 9 to set up first-and-goal. William Fowler faked a handoff, then kept to the 1 before scoring one play later. Kicker Ronnie Couch extra point gave the Vikings a 14-7 lead with 7:40 remaining until halftime.
A 13-play drive by the Blue netted nothing as a short pass attempt on fourth down at the Viking 26 fell incomplete.
With 1:03 left, however, the tides quickly shifted. With the ball at the 26, Fowler fumbled a shot-gun snap, and Jerry Sanders was right there to scoop and score. Momentum was now with Clover.
The Vikings nearly capitalized on some late half heroics, as Strano found Willis deep inside Clover territory, but a jarring hit knocked the ball loose, and the Blue Eagles quickly pounced.Pulling a play out of the New Orleans Saints’ playbook, Fort Walton squibbed and recovered an onsides kick with the kicker falling on the ball at the Clover 45. Strano then ran a keeper to the 13, but a personal foul on the offense negated the play. After finding Willis for a pair of passes, Strano connected with a wide open Smith at the 6 , who then raced to the end zone with 10:34 left in the third.
Down by just seven points, Clover didn’t shy away from its ground attack. The Blue Eagles pounded out a 10-play, 65-yard drive with Derrick Carothers and Brown taking the bulk of the load. Miller capped off the drive with a 23-yard touchdown scamper on fourth-and-1. Miller found a hole on the left side, then sharply cut right and out ran the defenders to pull Clover within one with 4:56 left in the quarter. Rather than tying the game with an extra-point kick, Llovani Rojas faked the kick, as Brown ended up with possession. Brown rolled right towards the end zone, then lofted a pass to Nolan Shepherd. The tight end caught the ball, but his feet were ruled out despite a strong effort.
The Vikings answered back by producing through the air, but it was a little luck that extended their lead. On 2nd down and 13 at the Clover 43, Strano tossed a pass intended for Willis who was racing down the right sidelines. Shepherd played the ball perfectly, so well in fact, he momentarily had possession. Instead he tipped the ball right into the waiting arms of Willis, who ran the rest of the way for the score. The point after gave the Vikings a 28-20 lead with 2:12 left in the third.
Clover answered with a 43-yard kickoff return by Brown, but Miller’s next pass was intercepted by Chaun Lynn at the Viking 35. T.C. Carter proved to be the workhorse on Fort Walton’s drive as he rumbled to midfield. Strano then found Smith again for a short pass, but the quick receiver broke tackles all the way down to the 18-yard line. After Adam Meyer ran to the 2, a false start penalty pushed the offense back to the 7. But that only delayed the inevitable, as Strano hit Keke Richardson on a slant screen pattern for a touchdown. Couch’s kick gave the Vikings a 15-point cushion with 11:55 to play.
Fort Walton nearly recovered another squibbed kick, but the Vikings we called for interference. That’s when Clover’s offensive line took over. The front maulers helped lead Miller and company to the 11-yard line, and Brown did the rest, spinning past defenders for a touchdown. Miller ran in a 2-point conversion to make it 35-28 with 7:57 on the clock.
Special teams came up big for the Blue Eagles as Desmond Wright recovered the ensuing onsides kick at the Viking 49.
Faced with a third and 12 at the 39, Brown raced for 14 yards. Carothers ran to the 11 on consecutive plays, but a false start call made it third-and-9 at the 14. Following a Clover timeout with 1:42 left, Miller hit Casey Snipes for a short pass to the 7. On fourth down-and-2, Sherer was clutch with a run to the 2. The Viking defense came up strong as Miller was stuffed at the 1 on back to back plays, forcing another timeout with just over 20 seconds left. But the senior leader would not be denied, as he broke the plain on his next carry, then scooted left on the two-point try for the lead, and ultimately the victory.
“This was my best win, ever,” Miller said. “We’ve had close finishes, but we’d never come back from 14 points in the fourth quarter to win. Everyone was on the same page—everyone had to give that extra effort tonight. Everybody sucked it up in the fourth, and mentally, we picked it up tonight. I was going to give it all I had, and hopefully that was enough. And my line gave me the holes tonight.”
The game-clinching pick on defense was the icing on the cake.
“It feels real good; it was a crossing route, and I decided to take the gamble,” Miller said. “Chad Hill tipped the ball up for me to make the play.”
And was there any doubt about going for a tie? Coach Turner had faith his boys would win.“Our kids played so hard,” Turner said. “And when Aaron’s in there, he’s such a great athlete, I just roll the dice. He’s got so much heart, and you’ve got to give the kids a chance to win. We’d had enough bad breaks that it was about time for good things to happen.”
Defensively, Sanders envisioned a workhorse running back as he returned the late first half fumble for a score.
“This feels so good; we’ve been together for so long,” Sanders said. “They made some big plays, but we came too far to let it all go down the drain like that. “When I picked it up, I saw Mark Ingram running with the ball. When we were down, we just worked hard and didn’t point fingers. We fought back as one unit.”
Brown also praised the entire team effort.
“This is the best game I’ve ever played, and to make history by beating a Florida team, that’s just an extra bonus. We just kept executing tonight.”
Fort Walton coach Mike Owens said his team still has a lot to be proud of despite the heartbreaking loss.
“We had too many first half mistakes, but I’m very proud of my team; they fought hard,” Owens said. “We got better, and that’s all I can ask for.”
Carter was distraught, but put the loss in perspective.
“We actually played as a team for the first time all season,” Carter said. “I’m very proud of how we played, but I’d like to play that game over.”