Swain County coach Neil Blankenship counted every lucky star above Carter-Finley Stadium that his football team was not behind by more Saturday.
The Maroon Devils were trailing Southwest Onslow, 37-34, when they lined up for an onside kick with 1 minute, 22 seconds to go in the NCHSAA 1-AA championship game.
The score was close despite the fact that Swain County had committed five turnovers, including a lost fumble on the opening kickoff.
The onside kick ricocheted off a Vikings player and was scooped up by DaMonta Winbush who took it 42 yards for a touchdown to ice a 44-34 win by Southwest Onslow.
“That play kind of puts the night in perspective,” Blankenship said.
“Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way. These kids of losses are tough. I thought our kids fought hard and overcame some adversity. But it just wasn’t our day.”
Southwest Onslow quarterback Shak Pershey (140 yards, two touchdowns) and Winbush (123 yards, one touchdown) both rushed for more than 100 yards.
J’Veon Walker scored two touchdowns, including a 94-yard kickoff return to open the second half. He was also one of two Vikings to intercept Swain County junior Raymius Smith, who passed for a school record 426 yards and two touchdowns.
Likewise, Greg Tisho set a single-game school record with 13 receptions. The senior turned those catches into 261 yards and two touchdowns.
Matthew Maennle had six receptions for 137 yards.
The Maroon Devils were limited to 109 team rushing yards, but Smith (two) and Blake Wright (one) combined for three touchdowns across the ground.
Smith was named the most valuable offensive player for Swain County during the postgame awards ceremony, while Payton Parker (16 tackles) was the defensive winner. Nathan Sellers was credited with 10 tackles.
The Maroon Devils (15-1) were Western North Carolina’s only unbeaten team entering the NCHSAA playoffs and Saturday’s loss snapped their 27-game winning streak.
“It’s tough to see this group leave without accomplishing one of their goals,” Blankenship said.
“They put so much into it and so has our coaching staff. It hurts.”
Swain County could not have asked for a much worse start on Saturday.
Maennle lost control of the opening kickoff and Southwest Onslow’s Aurellio Ottey fell on the fumble at the Swain County 35-yard line.
Two plays later, Walker took a reverse 40 yards for a touchdown just 16 seconds into the game.
Southwest Onslow (14-1) expanded on a 16-13 halftime lead with 21 unanswered points in the third quarter and then withstood a three-touchdown rally from the Maroon Devils.
“It was a great football game,” Vikings coach Phil Padgett said.
“I felt like we had a little more speed and we could use that to our advantage. But we got some turnovers that I wasn’t expecting. We knew (Swain County) wasn’t going to quit. But we made plays when we had to.”
The Maroon Devils were denied their ninth state championship in school history on Saturday. The previous ones came in 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2004 and 2011.
Even in defeat, Blankenship finished with more wins than any first-year coach in Swain County history. He was hired in January to replace Sam Pattillo, who led the Maroon Devils to a 1-AA state championship in his third and final season.
Saturday was the last football game for longtime Swain County assistant coach Frank Maennle. Maennle, who works with the running backs and defensive backs, is retiring after 34 years in the profession. He is also the boys basketball coach in Bryson City and plans to coach that team this winter.