North Hall is now battle-tested. More importantly, the Class AAA third-ranked Trojans (12-0) survived to advance in the state playoffs with a 21-7 win against Sandy Creek on Friday night at the Brickyard.
It was a slug-fest from beginning to end. Sandy Creek held North Hall’s normally potent offense to a season-low 220 rushing yards and only 242 yards of total offense. But in the end, low offensive numbers mattered very little.
The Trojans compensated for their slow offensive night showing more than enough character and resolve after playing a scoreless first half, and allowing the Patriots to tie the score 7-7 early in the fourth quarter.
The Trojans defense did more than enough to pick up the slack holding Sandy Creek to only 216 yards of offense.
And the saga of North Hall’s dream season continues for at least another week.
North Hall advances to the quarterfinals to face Perry (9-3) next Friday night at The Brickyard. The Panthers advanced with a 28-6 win over Worth County on Friday night in Perry.
With the win, North Hall is only one of six teams in the state to be playing in the quarterfinals in three of the last four seasons (2004, 2006 and 2007).
"We made plays on both sides of the football tonight," North Hall coach Bob Christmas. "I’m pleased with the way our team responded tonight against a very good Sandy Creek football team."
Sandy Creek challenged the Trojans like no one else has this season. The Trojans were left scrambling to find their offensive continuity after putting together only four first downs in the first half. That’s a stark contrast to the North Hall team that scored more than 40 points 10 times this season.
It was a bitter-sweet victory for the Trojans.
Everyone at North Hall is excited to be playing in the Class AAA quarterfinals again. But the Trojans were playing with heavy hearts after Chris Wilsdon, a key part of North Hall’s 2004 quarterfinal team, lost his life in a motorcycle accident Wednesday morning.
North Hall’s players were visibly stirred with emotion after Wilsdon’s father addressed the team during the post game. Before the game started the team played a video tribute in Wilsdon’s memory.
"We won this one for Chris," North Hall senior Colin Alford said. "It didn’t have anything to do with us."
The difference maker for the Trojans on Friday was the opportunistic play of senior tailback/linebacker Hunter Wolf. He had a hand in each of North Hall’s three touchdowns.
He finished as North Hall’s leading rusher with 18 carries for 110 yards.
Wolf had five defining plays in the second half to push the Trojans to victory.
Wolf started the second half on a strong note with a fumble recovery on the first play of the third quarter after Sandy Creek tailback Ragion Neal fumbled the ball.
Wolf punched it in to put the Trojans ahead 7-0 with a run from the 2 with 8:42 left to play in the third quarter. The Trojans were in position to score thanks to some gutsy play calling by Christmas.
On third-and-12 at the 22, the Trojans ran a screen play that Bobby Epps took 20 yards to set up Wolf’s touchdown. Sandy Creek’s defense was planning on a more conservative run on the play.
"Sandy Creek was really pinning their ears back and coming after us," Christmas said. "We thought that screen pass would be successful, and it was a good thing for us that it worked."
Wolf provided the game-breaker with 10:34 left to play in the fourth quarter. Leading 14-7, Wolf scored a 23-yard touchdown after stripping the ball from Patriots junior receiver Braxton Lane who had taken a direct hand off. With the ball in hand, Wolf didn’t miss a beat and went in untouched for the game’s final score.
"I tried to strip the ball, and came away with it in my hands," Wolf said. "This win means a lot because we’re one away from the Dome now."
Wolf also threw a block to spring quarterback Fabian Jackson for a touchdown from the 23 early in the fourth quarter. It was a short drive to score after Wolf returned the kickoff down to the Sandy Creek 27.
After Sandy Creek drove deep in North Hall territory on the ensuing drive, it was Wolf that came away with his final key play on the night with an interception in the end zone. The pick for Wolf snuffed out any chance of a Patriots come-from-behind victory.
"I ask our kids to make plays, and they responded," Christmas said. "We were challenged there in the second half, but I think that’s good for our team."
North Hall’s defense also played well all night holding the Patriots’ spread passing attack in check all night. Lane scored Sandy Creek’s only touchdown on a 65-yard pass from junior quarterback Rico Johnson with 11:46 left to play.
Lane, who has blazing 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash, was held in check with a team-high 95 yards. He was also under utilized in the passing game with only eight balls thrown in his direction on the night.
Sandy Creek’s season is now complete.