Murphy junior Foster Stroup had already trotted out and started to go through his pre-kick motions Saturday at BB&T Field.
Stroup was preparing to put his left leg into a 31-yard field goal attempt.
At the time, Stroup and the Bulldogs were facing fourth down and 4 from the Plymouth 14-yard line with 24 seconds to go in the second quarter of a rain-soaked NCHSAA 1-A football championship game. The conventional call was to go for the three points, especially with a 14-12 lead.
Western North Carolina’s all-time winningest coach didn’t care to be conventional, and David Gentry’s hunch proved correct.
Murphy needed every single point to hold on for a 35-34 win and its seventh state championship in school history (the sixth under Gentry).
Gentry called timeout on that second-quarter series and changed the play call to a run. Junior Deion Johnson broke it for a critical 14-yard touchdown.
Johnson was named the most valuable offensive performer for Murphy (13-3) after rushing for 113 yards and a touchdown. Johnson went past 1,000 yards for the season Saturday, joining Kenton Braswell (150 yards, two touchdowns) and Gaige Cox (112 yards, one touchdown) who had previously hit the benchmark.
Braswell’s 13-yard touchdown run with 4 minutes, 56 seconds to go was the final one scored by Murphy. He was named the game’s most valuable player, while fellow senior Austin Satterfield (14 tackles) was crowned the Bulldogs’ most valuable defensive performer.
“It was a heavyweight game all the way. Two big boxers in there throwing their best punches at each other,” Gentry said.
“Every time I thought we were going to get up one or two touchdowns on them, (Plymouth) came back. We were on the ropes at times, but I’m just so proud of this football team and these boys for coming back to win a state championship. You know, these seniors have two (the Bulldogs also won a 1-A title in 2011). There are not a whole lot of people out there who can say that.”
Saturday was the 346th career win for Gentry — the former WNC record (301) was held by the late Babe Howell. Gentry’s state championships at the Cherokee County school have come in 1986, 1987, 1991, 1996, 2011 and 2013.
Just like the 2011 season when the Bulldogs started 0-3, they lost multiple games this August (to Darlington School, Ga., and Franklin), before climbing out of that 0-2 hole to win a state championship.
“Our kids believe,” Gentry said. “Someone asked Gaige over the summer what his expectations were. He said, ‘I play football for Murphy High School, my expectation is to win a state championship.’ It doesn’t matter what I believe or what anyone else believes, our kids believe that.”
Murphy had 364 yards of offense compared with 292 for Plymouth.
Dalton Kent only attempted seven passes, but the Murphy sophomore completed four of them for 47 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Bradley Puccio at the 1:31 mark of the third quarter.
The Bulldogs did not commit any turnovers, even in wet conditions with temperatures in the low 40s in the Piedmont Triad region.
Davis led the way with 71 yards and two touchdowns for Plymouth (14-1), which had its 27-game winning streak snapped.
The Vikings beat Murphy, 20-15, in last year’s 1-A state championship game and took less than two minutes to score their first touchdown in the rematch. Demarkus Price found the end zone for the first of three times on a 19-yard run with 10:08 remaining in the first quarter. His 21-yard reception set up the potential game-winning 2-point conversion for Plymouth with 36 seconds to go in the game.
The Vikings, who did not attempt a single extra point kick, initially decided to run a quarterback sneak with junior Malik Webb.
But after the Bulldogs called a timeout, Plymouth coach Robert Cody decided instead to have Davis try and plow into the end zone. The 5-foot-11, 207-pound bruiser ran out wide to the right. There, he was met by several Murphy tacklers, including Malachi Beaver, who slowed Davis until help arrived.
By contrast, Stroup made all seven of his extra-point kicks.
“We had a chance to win it,” Cody said. “You can second guess yourself from time to time, and we had scored earlier on a play like (the Davis run). I’m proud of my kids. We just didn’t make a play there.”
Puccio recovered Plymouth’s only fumble, a first-quarter turnover that was caused by Justin Martin’s hit.
Murphy put 10 players on the All-Smoky Mountain Conference team — Beaver, Braswell, Johnson, Puccio, Satterfield, Stroup, Erik Rollins, Tyler Wiley, Bailey Beaver and Brody Loudermilk.