HOMERVILLE — The historic flight of the Mount Zion High School football team through the Class A Public state playoffs came to an end on Friday in yet another down-to-the-wire classic.
With a good chunk of the MZ community making the five-hour trek south to Panther Stadium for the semifinal showdown, the No. 8 Eagles came up just short in their bid for the program's first-ever state championship appearance, falling to No. 5 Clinch County in a 23-20 nail-biter.
Officially wrapping up his first season as Eagle head coach, Brad Gordon couldn't say enough about the heart and effort of this 2017 Mount Zion team.
"These kids never give up. We've faced adversity in what seems like every game," Gordon said. "Nobody gave them a chance and these kids kept fighting back. In the end, we only came up three points away from going to the Benz."
The first state semifinal appearance in program history immediately got started off on rocky footing for MZ (10-3). On just the second play of the game, senior C.J. Ackles was picked off by Clinch County cornerback Michael Walker to immediately swing momentum in the home team's favor.
But just like last week at No. 1 Manchester, the Eagle rush defense came ready to play in 'The Boneyard.' MZ stuffed Panther quarterback Charles McClelland to force a punt and then on the following drive, got off the field yet again after seniors C.J. Ledbetter and Cole Helton took down junior standout Trezman Marshall in a tag-team effort on third down.
Receiving the ball again, the ironman Ackles put his athleticism on full display, taking a pair of 25 and nine-yard option keepers for a touchdown to put the visitors on top 7-0 to close the first.
But the second quarter would go more toward Clinch County's favor.
The Cincinnati verbal commit McClelland marched his team down the field to open the period and eventually ran for an 11-yard score to tie the game 7-all. After a blocked punt set them up with first-and-goal on the 5, McClelland walked in for a easy touchdown to give the Panthers (11-2) the lead.
The Eagles would immediately answer as Ackles broke off an 80-yard run on the first play of the following drive to re-tie the game 14-all. However, the Panthers once again gained the upper hand when a punt that pinned MZ on its own 1-yard line eventually led to a safety to put the home team up by two.
In danger of going into an even deeper hole right before the half, it was none other than Ackles who one-armed an interception and returned the ball to midfield. Threatening to score after a 31-yard pass to Iaan "Mike-Mike" Cousin brought them deep into Clinch territory, the QB turned the ball over via a fumble in a play where several argued that his knee was down before losing the football.
Nevertheless, MZ entered the half trailing 16-14, a scenario that Gordon was confident his team could get out of quickly
"We went down 16-14 at the half and I told them that we wouldn't have it any other way," Gordon said.
The third quarter turned into a game of patience for the visitors as the Panthers milked tons of clock on a drive that started around the seven-minute mark and lasted all the way into the fourth quarter.
Facing fourth-and-seven at the start of the final period, the MZ 'D' got the critical stop that it needed to force a turnover on downs.
Almost immediately, the Eagle offense got cooking again with a 16-yard run from Que Beasley and a 42-yard Cousin reception, planting them deep into Clinch real estate. Finally, an 11-yard Ray Cheeks touchdown grab put them back on top. After a failed two-point conversion, MZ had to hang on to a 20-16 advantage midway through the fourth.
"That stop on fourth down was huge for us and we were able to move it down the field," Gordon said.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Clinch County had something up its sleeve, as well. Utilizing the highly-recruited FBS prospect Marshall to move the chains, a seven-yard Dantonio Robinson touchdown run allowed the Panthers to regain the lead with just over four minutes of ballgame left.
Facing an eerily similar situation as to its game-winning drive in the quarterfinals the previous week, Beasley, Ackles, Cousin and Tyriese Farley all made big plays to get the Eagles into Clinch territory with 45 seconds left. But after back-to-back sacks by the Panthers, the Eagles were forced to attempt a 47-yard Matthew Tittle field goal with 13.5 seconds left.
That kick would be tipped by the Clinch defense, allowing them to kneel out the clock and put an end MZ's historic run.
"It's heartbreaking for the kids because they deserved it. They worked their tails off and have done everything that we asked them to do," Gordon said. "When you watched these two teams warm up, the field tilted their way. For us to fight our tails off, it's awesome."
Gordon made sure to note that this outgoing batch of MZ seniors didn't just raise the bar, but are the bar for future Eagle teams to strive for. The possibilities of what this program can accomplish was raised this fall and the Eagle head coach is confident that they can do it all over again next year.
"Look at what Mount Zion football has become in the last four years," Gordon said. "We're a playoff staple now and I expect us to be right back here next year and play our tails off again. There ain't no quit in these players."