ELIZABETHTON — Missed opportunities against Christian Academy of Knoxville usually lead to a loss.
But Elizabethton didn't accept its fate even until the final play of the game.
A tough five-minute stretch in the second quarter left the Cyclones in a 21-point hole before a thrilling comeback left them an onside kick away from a shot at victory. However, the Warriors kicked a late field goal to secure a 44-34 win Friday night at Rider Field and earned their chance at a second straight state championship.
Elizabethton lost the TSSAA Class 3A state semifinal contest despite rushing for 404 yards and outgaining CAK, 474-444.
“Our kids persevered through adversity,” said Cyclones' head coach Shawn Witten. “I couldn't be more proud. Our kids kept fighting, and they were relentless.
“It was an unbelievable effort, and the 2012 team changed the perception of Elizabethton football.”
It was a season-ender for the Cyclones, who lost in the semifinals for the third time in four seasons and fell to 0-6 all-time at this stage of the playoffs. It snapped an 11-game winning streak, and the Cyclones' season ended at 11-3.
CAK, the defending state champion, earned a spot in next week's title game in Cookeville. The Warriors (13-1) will play Milan, which upset previously unbeaten Christ Presbyterian Academy 16-8 in the other semifinal.
The Warriors rode the brilliant passing of quarterback Charlie High in the first half, but used nine straight running plays to eat clock and set up a 32-yard field goal clincher by Derek Sokolowski with 44.6 seconds left in the game.
“I felt like they were expecting us to throw the ball to move the chains,” said CAK head coach Rusty Bradley. “The last time we had the ball we had a couple of drops and didn't take time off the clock.”
Cody Bailey, inserted at running back because of an injury to Corey Rathbone, answered the bell with eight crucial carries for 35 yards.
A key play on the drive was High's fourth-and-one run for two yards when it appeared two Elizabethton defenders had a shot at him in the backfield.
“We did the best we could, but we just didn't make some of the plays,” said Witten. “It is disappointing. We wanted to perform better. We had our hands on some balls.”
The Cyclones had at least five chances to get interceptions on deflected balls, but each time the football found its way to the turf.
“We had our chances,” said Witten.
High was impressive in the first half, hitting 21 of 30 throws for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
“It was amazing what they could do,” said Cyclones' cornerback Terrence Turner. “That's why they have players going to college. They ran their routes well, and the quarterback made his reads well. We played our hearts out, and gave it all we had.”
It was a different story in the second half with Elizabethton's offense dominating the line of scrimmage. High was only 2 of 5 passing for 51 yards. It left him two yards short of the all-time state record for career passing yardage with 10,517 — but High will get another game to take care of that.
Receiver Davis Howell caught 10 balls for 191 yards and two touchdowns in the first half before being shutout in the second half. He has 343 career catches and needs seven more to set the all-time national record.
UT commitment Josh Smith was as good as advertised, hauling in eight passes for 130 yards and two scores.
However, the second half was pretty much all Cyclones. They opened up with a 12-play all-ground drive that was capped by Ethan Thomas' 4-yard scoring run.
Thomas was a man about his business, finishing with 198 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns. He had 220 yards of total offense, and finished the season with 2,097 yards rushing.
“Their sophomore tailback was unbelievable,” said Bradley. “We couldn't tackle him. They did a great job with the running game.”
Indeed. The Cyclones finished with 404 yards on 55 carries, and Turner added 103 yards on 14 carries.
“I'm proud of the offensive line for stepping up, and I'm proud of Ethan and Caleb Bailey,” said Turner, who finished the season with 1,107 rushing yards. “I can't tell you how much I love my teammates. This is emotional. I hate to see the season end.”
Trailing 34-20, Elizabethton tried an onside kick. CAK recovered and scored in two plays, the last being a 32-yard strike from High to Reagen Matlock.
The Cyclones went on a 12-play drive, converting two fourth downs — including a 22-yard reception by Thomas, who tipped the ball and plucked it out of the air. The scoring play was a fourth-and-goal 6-yard pass from Bailey to Adam Bowers to make it 41-27 with 11:03 left in the game.
Hit with offensive pass interference, CAK went three and out. The Cyclones then brutalized the Warriors' defense with a nine-play all-ground drive that was capped by Turner's 3-yard scoring run to make it 41-34 with 5:41 remaining.
The Cyclones tried a third straight onside kick, and this time the ball was loose in the air after a touch by CAK. However, the Warriors recovered and worked their way down the field for the field goal.
The game started badly for the Cyclones as High needed just three plays to move his team 66 yards for a score, hitting Smith with a 44-yard scoring pass.
However, the Cyclones proved their ground game was a threat, too. They blasted down the field in seven plays with Thomas bowling in from three yards to make it 6-6.
Both teams had their first extra-point attempts blocked.
CAK soared down the field again with High hitting Howell from three yards out to make it 13-6.
The Cyclones answered again. Thomas had a 62-yard run, and eventually scored from three yards out to make it 13-13.
High went to his office again, settling into the pocket for a 10-yard fade lob to a leaping Smith in the corner of the end zone.
That's when things went wrong for Elizabethton. A personal foul turned a second-and-five situation into second and 20 from their own 38, and the Cyclones could not get a first down.
High directed the attack again, but Rathbone powered in from one yard out to finish the drive and make it 27-13. A few plays before the score, a deflected pass popped in the air but fell through the grasp of an Elizabethton defender.
On the Cyclones' next possession, CAK ended a drive with a strip of the football after and five-yard gain in Warriors' territory.
Seven plays later, High hit Howell on a skinny post from 20 yards out to make it 34-13 at halftime.