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One game short

GREENVILLE – For 24 minutes, Hertford County bask in the glow of victory.

Unfortunately for the Bears and their large following of faithful fans, the sport of high school football is a 48-minute affair as Wilson Hunt rallied from a 14-13 halftime deficit to hand Hertford County a 29-14 loss here Saturday night in the Eastern Regional championship game of the NCHSAA Class 3A state play-offs.

The loss snapped the Bears eight-game winning streak as HCHS finished a remarkable season at 9-6 overall.

&uot;Sure, we would have loved to play one more time, but it just wasn’t to be,&uot; said first-year Bears boss Greg Watford whose club overcame a dismal 0-4 start and take off on an improbable run to the Eastern finals.

While most would be quick to judge Hertford County’s entire season on Saturday’s bitter ending, Watford looked at it in an entirely different light.

&uot;These guys didn’t quit, even with four straight losses to open the season,&uot; he noted. &uot;They kept fighting and because of that they gave me a trophy that doesn’t come from Chapel Hill (the home office of the state’s High School Athletic Association). That trophy was etched with belief, belief in themselves. These young men proved wrong those in the media and in the Internet chat rooms that the Bears were a fluke, that there was no way this team could go as far as it did.&uot;

That improbable run, solidified in an eight-game winning streak, continued over the opening 24 minutes of Saturday’s game at ECU’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. There, the Bears dodged a couple of huge bullets in the first half of play to take a 14-13 lead at the break.

The first bullet came when Hunt’s Marcus Sauls returned the game’s opening kickoff 69 yards for an apparent touchdown. The score was wiped off the board due to a block in the back flag against the Warriors, forcing Hunt to start its first drive at the HCHS 46 yardline. Six plays later, Hunt found the endzone again on Jermaine Williams’ nine-yard TD run, but that one was also nullified on an illegal shift penalty. Three plays later, Brian Radford missed a 31-yard field goal.

Hunt’s luck did take a turn for the better when, three plays after the missed field goal, HCHS quarterback Danny Dembry lost the handle on the pigskin and Hunt’s Justin Bass recovered at the Bears five yardline. Three plays later, Allen Corbett connected with Will Crocker on a four-yard TD pass, a score that counted this time around. Radford missed the PAT, leaving Hunt with a 6-0 lead at the 5:08 mark of the first period.

After the Bears wasted a chance to score after a 50-yard drive due to Michael Burton misfiring on a 27-yard field goal – one that just missed its mark – the HCHS defense stiffened, forcing Hunt to punt from inside its own 30 yardline.

Setting up shop at their own 40, it took the Bears only three plays to score their first touchdown when Dembry lofted a perfect spiral to a wide-open Jaquin Sessoms. That connection went for 57 yards and, coupled with Burton’s PAT, the Bears had a 7-6 lead with 8:49 left in the second quarter.

Less than one minute later, Hunt answered with a TD pass of their own as Corbett tossed a 33-yard scoring strike to a diving Lee Lee Pender. Radford tacked on the PAT as Hunt reclaimed the lead at 13-7.

Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, the game nearly blew-up in the Bears face when they lost another fumble, this one recovered by Hunt’s Zack Strickland at the HCHS 19. But the HCHS defense stiffened as a key second down stop by Tydreke Powell, Wendell Gatling and Jimmie Holloman was followed by a third down sack of Corbett by Chris Stanley. That left Hunt to settle for a field goal, a 29-yard attempt by Radford that missed its mark.

With renewed lift, Hertford County’s offense proceeded to march 80 yards in 11 plays capped by Dembry’s six-yard scoring pass to Ken Lee who out leaped the Hunt defender at the one yardline and then stretched the ball over the plane of the goal line. Burton’s PAT gave the Bears its 14-13 halftime lead.

That was the last time the Bears and their fans had reason to celebrate.

Saddled with penalties in crucial situations (HCHS was flagged 13 times for 67 yards) and a stout Hunt defense, the Bears never got into any offensive rhythm over the final 24 minutes. Their normally potent ground game produced only 49 yards over the final two periods. Of their half-dozen, second-half possessions, HCHS punted four times, threw an interception and saw their last drive end at Hunt’s 12 yardline as the final seconds ticked off the game clock.

The lone bright spot was sophomore quarterback Danny Dembry – a 15-year-old who threw for a game and career-high 216 yards, 79 of which came in the second half.

Meanwhile, Hunt was throwing its offense into high gear as the Warriors produced 199 of their 346 total yards in the second half. That effort was highlighted by Williams, a senior running back that had 120 of his game-high 159 rushing yards over the final 24 minutes.

With Williams running the &uot;buck sweep&uot; to near perfection, Hunt consistently chewed up huge chunks of real estate. His runs set-up a pair of third quarter touchdowns – Corbett’s 12-yard scramble to the endzone after being flushed out of the pocket and Todrick Nelson’s 13-yard scoring run.

Radford closed out the scoring with a 41-yard field goal with 8:30 left in the game.

Offensively, HCHS produced 312 total yards, led by Dembry’s aerial assault. LaMarcus Bond was the Bears leading rusher with 38 yards on 14 carries.

Defensively, Sessoms, Powell, Gatling, Joel Britt and Cedric Fields led the Bears with four tackles each.

Pender (6 tackles) and five stops each by Ronald Wright and Strickland paced Hunt defensively.

Hunt High School (13-2 overall) moves on to meet Concord this Saturday (Dec. 11) at Groves Stadium in Winston-Salem for the NCHSAA Class 3A state championship.

&uot;We can run fast; we’re very athletic; and we have a few gadget plays up our sleeve, but it didn’t take (Hunt head coach) Randy Raper very long to exploit our one glaring weakness – lack of physical strength,&uot; stressed Watford. &uot;We will address that problem immediately. Championship games are played in December, but they are won throughout the year by hitting the weight room, something we will do just as soon as the holiday break is over.&uot;

In a show of true sportsmanship, Watford closed by saying, &uot;We lost to a really good football team. We wish Hunt the best of luck in the state championship and hope they represent the eastern part of the state very well.&uot;

(R-C News-Herald News/Sports Editor Cal Bryant contributed to this story.)