By REID TUCKER
Black Friday almost ended up a day of mourning for defending Region 1-A champ Northview, which, but for a holding call on Freeport in overtime, may have faced the upset of the 2012 season. Freeport head coach Jim Anderson summed it up best. “As usual, the boys Freeport played their hearts out,” he said, following the emotional conclusion to a tumultuous 6-6 season.
With the score knotted 28-all after the end of regulation play, Freeport won the coin toss to get the first try from the 10-yard line. Senior running back Owen Cole, who carried the ball 22 times for 97 yards and two touchdowns on his final night of his high school career, cut around the Chiefs’ defenders on the first play from scrimmage, bounding into the end zone for the go-ahead score. However, the touchdown was called back when the officials popped Freeport with the aforementioned holding call, creating a first-and-20 situation from which the Bulldogs did not recover.
Northview’s Neino Robinson reached the 1-yard line with a run up the middle, followed shortly thereafter by LaMykal Kyles, the Chiefs’ leading rusher and scorer with 118 yards on 25 carries and three TDs, who punched in the game-winning score for a 34-28 final.
Despite the loss, the mood on the Freeport sideline, though subdued, was far from defeated. The Bulldogs punched above their weight all night, jumping ahead to a 14-0 lead by mid second-quarter and pressing the action thereafter, forcing Northview to play catch-up on most possessions. All told, Freeport turned in arguably its best performance of the year since playing a close season opener against 6A Fort Walton Beach High.
Every aspect of Freeport’s game was much improved from the team’s previous meeting with the Chiefs, who blanked the ‘Dogs 42-0 in the regular season. Cole’s ground gains were smaller than on some nights this season, but they moved the ball steadily downfield, and though quarterback Gabe Moore threw two interceptions he also threw two picture-perfect touchdowns passes of 29 yards and 42 yards, while running in another. The Freeport defense similarly stepped up its game, recovering or forcing seven total fumbles from the Chiefs, with sophomore Tristan Locke in particular standing out for his tremendous effort on either side of the ball.
Northview’s introductory drive was 20 plays long but ended in a fumble recovery by the Bulldogs on the 11-yard line with 5:06 left in the first quarter, only for Moore to float in a TD pass to Joseph Scarpaci roughly two minutes later. Moore put the point-after kick between the goalposts and Freeport led 7-0 at the outset. Northview’s next possession ended in another fumble, this time on the 19-yard line with just one minute left in the quarter, with sophomore David Godwin, recently returned from injury, coming up with the recovery.
The first quarter ran out soon after, and both teams were forced to punt on their next possessions. A pass from Moore on Freeport’s second possession of Q2 was intercepted by the Chiefs’ Neiko Robinson, but the Bulldogs’ defense forced Northview back to their own 3-yard line before Locke ripped out the ball to give Freeport its third fumble recovery of the night. Cole needed just three seconds to put another touchdown on the scoreboard for the ‘Dogs, with Moore once again making good on the point-after attempt for a 14-0 lead with 7:06 left in the half.
The Chiefs retaliated on a swift drive downfield thanks to long passes from QB Kevin Vaughn, which put Kyles in place for a 17-yard sprint for a touchdown at the 5:34 mark. Vaughn’s kick was good and Northview trailed by seven. Northview popped Freeport in the mouth on the Bulldogs’ next possession, forcing a punt from their 8-yard line, and Neino Robinson returned the ball 44 yards to tie the game at 14-all.
Freeport had to punt from a fourth-and-long situation from its own 25 on the next possession, but Northview muffed the return, giving the Bulldogs favorable field position on the 39-yard line, but the Chiefs came up with an interception just a few seconds before the intermission.
The Bulldogs punted twice and Northview turned the ball over on downs after the break, with gridlock reigning until 15 seconds to go in the third period, when Vaughn hit Kyles on a 7-yard pass for his second score of the night. Northview went ahead 21-14 after the extra point kick, but Freeport started off the fourth quarter with a big run from Chase Caswell to the 49-yard line. Moore then connected with Cole on a pass-play for a touchdown from 42-yards out to tie the game again.
Freeport went ahead by a touchdown after Zach Fordem picked off a pass from Vaughn on the Northview 28 with 7:51 to go, enabling Cole, Moore and Nick Russell to truck down to the 15-yard line. Moore grabbed the ball and ran for a 28-21 lead with 5:42 left in regulation play. Nevertheless, Northview returned fire in five plays’ time thanks to coming up on the better end of an onside kick. Vaughn and Neino Robinson drove the ball to third and goal from the 4 – then Vaughn hit Cameron Newsome to tie the game for the final time with 4:07 remaining. Neither team could put anything together in the final minutes of the quarter, leading into the overtime finish. Northview will travel to face Liberty County in the state semifinal on Friday.
Anderson said the game against Northview, which turned out far closer than he or indeed most anyone else expected, was proof that Bulldogs were not to be discounted when it came to long odds. He called the 2012 schedule the toughest in his 11 years with the program, and this game in particular reminded him of why his time with Freeport meant so much to him.
“When I got here in 2001 we had a similar regular season game that we played over our heads but didn’t pull it out in the end,” he said. “I said it then and I’ve said it every year since, I’ll take our guys over anybody. I don’t care what kind of talent they have, or size, numbers or anything. Our guys work harder and have more heart than anyone else.
“I wish we could have won it, but tonight was a great effort. We couldn’t ask more out of them. It goes to show that our players give it everything they have.”