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After thriving all season long on a stifling defense and a grinding running game, the Spencer County Bears who showed up for Friday night’s first round playoff game against visiting Nelson County didn’t even resemble a shadow of their former selves. The Bears who went 7-3 in the regular season would not have lost 56-14 Friday night.
The playoffs are a second season, and while the Bears found much success in the first 10 games, game number 11 was one to forget, as Nelson County’s vaunted passing attack allowed the Cardinals to move the ball virtually at will against the Bears. Meanwhile, the Bears had little success early on moving the ball on offense, and the Cardinals were able to build an insurmountable lead in the first half.
Nelson County provided a glimpse of their offensive plan on their first possession, as they went straight to the air and moved the ball deep into Spencer County territory. However, the Bears dodged the bullet with a fumble recovery, but then were forced to punt from around mid-field. The punt was blocked and Nelson County took over at midfield and went back to the air, driving down to the Spencer County 4-yard line. Once again, the Bears dodged another bullet when Chase McIntosh intercepted a pass in the end zone.
However, the Bears would fumble on their next series and Nelson County would then strike on a 17-yard run up the middle to go up 7-0 on the first play in the second quarter.
The Bears could produce little offense on their next series, punting after three plays and Nelson County then scored again on a 40-yard touchdown pass to go up 14-0. The Bears’ strategy of keeping Cardinal senior quarterback Dylan Beasley on the sideline by running the ball and the clock was not working, and Nelson County got the ball back a few minutes later, scoring their third touchdown of the half on an 8-yard run to go up 21-0 with just under three minutes left in the half.
The Bears tried to make something happen, and quarterback Trent Holbrook lofted a deep pass that was picked off near midfield, giving the Cardinals yet another scoring opportunity that they would take advantage of. Beasley, who all night delivered dart-like passes to receivers, marched them downfield and then tossed a 5-yard touchdown pass to go up 28-0.
Bears Coach Mike Marksbury said he wish he could have that last series of the half back.
“That was a terrible call on my part,” he said. “The play was there but it was too risky and I should have ran the half out.”
In the second half, the Bears were hungry to prove they wanted to make a game of it, and took over deep in their own territory after the kickoff. A 46-yard run by Chase Smith set the Bears up, and then Holbrook followed that with a big pass play to Chris Dunbar to put the Bears at the Cardinal 12-yard line. Holbrook would then complete a pass to Smith on a fourth and 15 play for the score and the Bears were down 28-7.
Nelson County proved unwilling to let the Bears get any closer, and marched back down the field on their next possession, combining the run and the pass to get to the Bears’ 8-yard-line, scoring on an 8-yard run to go up 35-7. They would score three more touchdowns in the second half before the Bears were able to punch one in late in the fourth quarter on a run by Logan Holbrook to make the final score 56-14.
Beasley, who earlier this season set a state high school record with 652 passing yards in one game, completed 22-30 on the night for 281 yards. The Cardinals also ran the ball for 172 yards and combined with Spencer County turnovers and miscues, the Bears simply did not play like the team it had been all season long.
Spencer County did end up with 273 rushing yards of its own, but was not able to convert that into nearly enough points to keep it close.
“Most definitely, it’s not the way we wanted or expected our season to end,” said Marksbury. “We knew going into the game that they would put points on the board. Our objective was not to give them extra possessions with turnovers and make sure our special teams were solid. Any team that loses four fumbles, an interception and a punt blocked is going to struggle.
“Nelson County played great and we, for whatever reason, didn’t. In the playoffs, that can’t happen.”
Marksbury said nothing Nelson County did surprised him, but said Beasley is a very talented quarterback and he was able to find receivers even when he got pressured. The coach said the Bears knew they would pass, but felt that had to stop Nelson County running the ball, which they also had trouble doing.
“Our plan was to do what we do — run the football, chew the clock and score points and not give their offense as many possessions,” he said. Obviously, the Bears were unable to execute that plan.
“We got a couple of stops early, but couldn’t get anything going. All season long we knocked people off the ball but give Nelson credit, they didn’t allow that to happen. They came in with a lot of emotion and were flying around. If we had put our trademark drive together and take that emotion out of them early, it might have been different.”
Toward the end of the game, frustration started to mount for the Bears. There were several unsportsmanlike penalties called and Marksbury asked for a timeout, gathererd his entire team around him and told them to end the game with class.
“Football is a very emotional sport and there comes a time in your last game as a senior when you realize that your career as a high school player is about to end,” he said. “Emotions take over and kids get frustrated. I just kind of felt we needed to gather the team up and refocus them to finish the game and their career with effort and pride.”
While Friday night ended in disappointment, Marksbury said several of his players have a chance to play at the next level, and reminded them to be proud of what they accomplished at Spencer County.
“They set a new standard,” he said. “I told them how much I appreciated their efforts in helping us build this program. They took this program to another level and had competed at an extremely high level. I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of our seniors and I thank them all for their efforts.”