They streamed off the field, leaving puddles of tears behind them, mourning a premature end to what they hoped would be a championship season.
G.W. Carver football players held little back while slowly ambling off the field and watching an Opelika celebration.
“I tried,” Carver senior quarterback Jeremy Johnson said after the Bulldogs’ 35-21 win Friday in the Class 6A semifinals.
“I tried my hardest.”
Johnson’s eyes were still red and ringed with tears, a regular sight amongst the Wolverines, who reached the state semifinals for the third time in school history.
Carver has yet to play for a state championship.
“It will take us the whole school year or probably longer than that to get over this,” senior running back Harvey Harris said. “Words can’t explain it.”
Opelika (10-4) avenged a regular-season loss to the Wolverines (12-2) and advanced to the state finals for the first time.
The Bulldogs will play Hoover at 7 p.m. Friday at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“We knew that nobody from Opelika High School had been to a championship game,” Opelika junior safety Malcolm Buggs said. “We wanted to do something that’s never been done before.
“Now that we’re here, we want to finish.”
Carver was oh-so-close to rallying from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to win.
Johnson scored on a 4-yard run with 6:04 remaining to make it 27-21 and led the Wolverines into scoring position with less than 2 minutes to play.
On first-and-goal from the 5, Johnson scrambled to his left, spun and threw into the end zone.
“I didn’t see the receiver open, so I went to my left, saw somebody and threw across my body,” Johnson said. “I guess I didn’t throw it high enough.”
Buggs intercepted it and ran 100 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
“It was a one-read throw for Jeremy and the defensive back did a great job covering it up,” Carver coach Billy Gresham said. “In a perfect world, you’d like to see him throw it away, but Jeremy has made that play so many times.
“Their safety made a great football play.”
Johnson, who threw another interception with 22 seconds to play, finished 23-of-40 passing for 229 yards and a touchdown. He started Friday with 30 TD passes and just five interceptions.
Johnson also ran 18 times for 58 yards and two scores.
“He hurts right now, and that’s a part of life,” Gresham said. “Sometimes things don’t go well for you. It will make him better down the road when he gets to the next level.”
Harris, Carver’s running back, ran for 154 yards on 23 carries. Opelika’s Calvin Bryant ran for 130 yards and a score, while Jakell Mitchell scored three touchdowns.
When it ended, the Wolverines were brought to tears and the Bulldogs ran amok nearby.
“It’s going to take a while for us to get over this because our goal was to play for a state championship and win a state championship,” Gresham said.
“But what a great career these seniors had and what a great season this team had,” Gresham said. “We have to keep striving and keep working and use this to help our young guys get back next year.”