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High school football: Glorious comeback carries Comets to Class A title


SYRACUSE — Carthage quarterback Bailey Wilkinson gathered his offensive mates in the huddle, knowing the Comets needed to cover 90 yards in just over 2 1/2 minutes, with no timeouts available.

“We just have to do it,’’ Wilkinson remembered saying to his teammates. “We came too far to go out this way.’’

So all the senior signal-caller did was spearhead a magical drive for the ages. He completed seven passes for 61 yards and ran three times for 15 yards, including the final two yards with 21 seconds left for a touchdown to cap off the 14-play march despite three illegal motion penalties. He then pitched the ball to Josh Yelvington on a reverse for the go-ahead, 2-point conversion as Carthage unbelievably pulled out a 21-20 win over Indian River in the Section 3 Class A football championship game Saturday night at the Carrier Dome.

“These kids are unbelievably resilient,’’ a stunned Carthage coach Sam Millich said. “We obviously work on last-minute situations like that, but to do it under such pressure is amazing.’’

Trailing 20-13, third-seeded Carthage (9-1) had watched the top-seeded Warriors (8-2) drive to the Carthage 11-yard line as the clock wound under three minutes.

But the Comets’ defense stiffened and eventually blocked a 22-yard field goal by Zachary LaForest-Hurd with 2:37 to play. It was hard to believe Wilkinson could work his magic that quickly, ala John Elway and “The Drive.”

“The line gave me time, the receivers made some nice catches and then got out of bounds, and we just managed the clock perfectly,’’ Wilkinson said. “And when coach said ‘we’re going for two,’ everybody was happy.’’

Carthage actually drew a delay-of-game, five-yard penalty before it could run the conversion play. What Millich had called was “17 Z reverse,” a play he had just put into the playbook this week.

“Believe or not, we were in the wrong formation,’’ Millich said. “But Josh made one heck of an effort to get into the end zone.’’

Yelvington was hit near the 3-yard line after taking the pitch from Wilkinson, but kept his feet moving and dived into the end zone. “Nobody was going to stop me even if I had to plow through four or five guys,’’ he said.

Indian River coach Cory Marsell said “it was as tough a loss to swallow as we can have. All we needed was a couple more yards at the end and a first down would have settled things. But give all the credit to Carthage for making so many big plays.’’

Junior running back Jakese Crockett ran for 175 yards and a touchdown for Indian River, which had beaten Carthage, 48-12, during the regular season.

Carthage (9-1) will play Section 4 winner Union-Endicott at 8 p.m. Friday at Union-Endicott High School in the state quarterfinals.

Sophomore fullback Dustin Sharrit also scored two touchdowns for Indian River, which trailed 6-0 at halftime.

Millich said his club survived even though it wasted so many good scoring opportunities and wasn’t efficient on offense.

“We knew Indian River would make a move because they have such great athletes,’’ Millich said. “And that us not scoring more the first half would probably come back to hurt us. But this is just an amazing bunch of kids with no quit in them.’’

Carthage forced two first-half fumbles, turning one into a Wilkinson 3-yard TD scamper after failing on three successive tries from the Warriors’ 3-yard line midway through the second quarter.

Despite leading at the break, the Comets were kicking themselves for squandering so many scoring chances.

They ran 38 plays to 20 for the Warriors, and had 50 yards more in total offense. But Carthage failed to score following a 13-play, first-quarter drive to the Indian River 8. They also saw shorter drives end at the Warriors’ 20 and 21 on fourth-down incomplete passes.

“To be down just 6-0, we felt pretty good because what our defense had done,’’ Marsell said. “It just took a half for the offense to find any rhythm.’’

Sharrit scored on a 2-yard run halfway through the third quarter, but the PAT was blocked.

Carthage answered when Dylan James made an acrobatic catch of a Wilkinson pass and turned it into a 64-yard score. The Comets’ PAT was also blocked and they led 13-6.

Crockett, who gained most of his yards on jet sweeps, scored from 12 yards out at the end of the third quarter, and Sharrit scored on a 1-yard run following a Denzel Barnes 35-yard punt return at the start of the fourth quarter to give Indian River its first lead, 20-13.

And when the Warriors’ defense stopped Carthage again, this time on fourth down from the Indian River 5 with just over seven minutes remaining, it looked like the Comets’ hopes were dashed.

But Wilkinson said he always believed. “It’s kind of like a fairy-tale ending,’’ he said. “Everything had to go right, and it did at the end. We’ll look back at this in a few years and say, that was really something.’’

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