POCA — When the long-expected rains started falling at halftime, it was natural to expect that the conditions favored Poca, the team with record-setting running back Ethan Payne. Especially after Oak Glen was limited to 42 rushing yards in the first half.
But just like they’d done all season, the Golden Bears kept bucking the odds. And this time, they rode them all the way to the state playoff semifinals.
Versatile Hunter Patterson threw a disputed 11-yard touchdown pass to Michael Lemley on the opening play of the fourth quarter and Oak Glen made it stand up for a 25-20 victory over the No. 3 Dots at O.O. White Stadium.
Patterson caught a 75-yard TD pass, returned a kickoff 87 yards for a score and went 2 for 2 on option passes for 31 yards, including the winning TD toss. He also chipped in 98 yards on 17 carries and caught five passes for 102 yards.
The win sends sixth-seeded Oak Glen (12-0) into the semifinal round for the first time in program history. The Hancock County school, which opened in 1963, has only qualified for the playoffs four times. The Golden Bears visit No. 2 Bridgeport next weekend.
Oak Glen’s resuscitated ground game milked the final 9:32 off the clock in impressive fashion, running 19 plays that covered 61 yards on the now mud-covered field.
“We thought the rain might hurt us,’’ said Golden Bears coach Ted Arneault, “but maybe the rain helped us at the end to stay in that last drive. I’m so proud of the kids for taking care of the ball and believing in what they had to do. It was step by step the entire last drive to put the game away at the end.’’
Payne, who broke the state record for touchdowns and points scored in the regular season, was primed for another big game by halftime with 20 carries for 150 yards and one TD as the game was tied at 13-all. That included gains of 40, 24 and 29 yards. But after the field was reduced to mud in the second half, Payne managed only 30 yards on 10 attempts to finish with 30 carries for 180 yards.
“I thought we were close all day — especially in the first half — to breaking that long run that we usually get,’’ said Poca coach Seth Ramsey. “It just didn’t happen today. They did a great job pursuing the football and did a great job getting us hemmed in. We just didn’t make that big play.
“We were trying to get to the edge a lot, to get it from the hash to the sideline where you’ve got a little bit better footing, and we just couldn’t get it there today. Our guys played hard, we ran hard, blocked hard and tackled hard, but we just didn’t get over the hump today.’’
On a day of several calls disputed by both sides, the winning touchdown pass fell into that category.
With Oak Glen trailing 20-19, the fourth quarter opened with the Bears facing a third-and-goal call from the Poca 11. Patterson took a short pitchout and fired into the middle of the end zone, where Poca’s Payne batted the ball away from the intended target. But the ball caromed over to a sliding Michael Lemley in the corner of the end zone. Poca’s coaches argued that Lemley didn’t have possession long enough, but after a lengthy officials’ conference, it was ruled a TD.
Third-seeded Poca (11-1), which had earlier rallied from a 19-13 deficit to retake the lead in the third quarter, went three-and-out on its next possession and punted the ball back to the Golden Bears on their own 13 with 9:32 left. Little did the Dots know, they would never see the ball again.
With the field now in Slip ‘n Slide condition, Oak Glen alternated between handoffs to 235-pound fullback Paxton Shuman and direct snaps to the elusive Patterson. The Golden Bears converted third and 5, third and 2, third and 1 and third and 10 in their marathon possession. They failed on another third and 1, but picked up the first down on fourth and 2. They also overcame a false start penalty early in the drive and three minus-yard runs.
“We couldn’t get off the field,’’ Ramsey said. “Defensively, I’m still proud of these guys. They played their hind end off. We just didn’t make a play when we needed to. We just left a lot on the field. Too many turnovers against a team like this. We gave them too many chances.
“They’re a very good football team. I know a lot of people didn’t think they were very good because of the schedule they played, but it wouldn’t have mattered what schedule they played. They’re one of the top teams in the state, and they earned this today.’’
Oak Glen’s Nick Chaney was 8 of 16 passing for 161 yards and two TDs. He was picked off twice and the Golden Bears lost one of six fumbles. Poca’s Jay Cook was 9 of 16 passing for 156 yards with two touchdowns and one interception and the Dots lost two of four fumbles. Toby Payne caught five passes for 102 yards and two scores for Poca, one of them a 60-yarder on a pass deflected right into his hands by an Oak Glen linebacker.
Arneault said his defense put extra defenders into the tackle box in an effort to corral Ethan Payne, who finished the season with well over 2,800 rushing yards.
“We did at times,’’ Arneault said, “but they still have great athletes on the perimeter, Toby Payne is still a great receiving threat and they’ve got a quarterback who can throw the ball. So you don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul. That’s something we had to be aware of. Our guys inside the box were able to slow him down enough so the ballhawks we have in coverage could do their job.
“The main thing is we didn’t want [Ethan Payne] to come free. They had a counter play they were hurting us on, and we wanted to make sure we had that in check, and we wanted to get a hat on him every play. But slowing him down, that’s a diffucult task and I’m so proud of our defense for getting that done.’’