M's bid for state title comes up short
PALMER - 72 inches.
No matter how you measure it, that is the distance that separated the Homer Mariners from a chance at reaching high school football's version of "The Promised Land" on a cool Saturday afternoon at Machetanz Field. Senior quarterback Teddy Croft was dragged down by reserve linebacker Jalen Tracey two yards from the goal line as time expired.
"We just ran out of time," Homer head coach Walter Love said after Tracy's tackle had helped Barrow hold on to claim a 20-14 victory in the ASAA First National Bank Division III State Football Championship matchup. "We just needed a few more seconds. But this is football. Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes it gets you.
"I couldn't be more proud of these guys," he said. "They played hard all the way to the end and never quit. We just ran out of time."
Make no mistake about it, an electric fourth-quarter performance by Croft and Joe Ravin helped the Mariners' get the bear - and the school's first-ever state football championship - in their sites.
Barrow grabbed a 6-point lead, at 20-14, just 23 seconds into the fourth quarter. Senior running back Ben Heather capped a quick 3-play, 47-yard drive by racing around the left end and diving into the end zone.
The Whalers' senior halfback Travis Adams set up Heather's second rushing touchdown of the game one play earlier by reeling off a 31-yard scamper to the Mariner 9 before Croft managed to bring him down.
Unscathed, the Mariners seemed poised to answer right back. Moments after a short kick had given Homer the ball at their own 43, Croft took the snap from Levi King, rolled to his right and then raced 18 yards. Noah Fisk followed that with a 9-yard scamper.
Barrow didn't help itself either. On Fisk's carry, the Whalers were hit with a 15-yard penalty - enabling the Mariners to move the ball to the BHS 15.
Unfortunately for Homer, the wheels came off the HHS wagon. Heather managed to scoop up a fumbled pitch on an option play on the ensuing play, giving Barrow the ball at its own 16 with less than six minutes to play.
Ravin took the thunder out of the Whalers' attack minutes later. The senior defensive back stepped in front of Barrow's Sione Tui'fia in the end zone and returned the interception to the Mariner 12. His interception gave Homer new life with just over 4:30 left in the contest.
Sparked by a 19-yard pass-play to Dawson Felde and a crucial pass interference penalty on the Whalers, Homer marched to the Barrow 4. On a 4th-and-1 play with 30 seconds left, Croft added even more hope to the HHS threat by scrambling for a first down at the Whaler 2.
With no time outs, two plays later, Croft again attempted to scramble his way through the Barrow defense. This time, back-up linebacker Jalen Tracey - who had been inserted into the game only a play earlier when the Whalers' starting outside linebacker had left due to an injury - managed to pull him down just yards shy of the goal line.
"You have to hand it to them, they never quit," said first-year Barrow head coach Chris Battle. "This game wasn't over until the last play. They (Homer) have an outstanding team."
Homer, making its third-ever appearance in the state title game, had the first laugh in the contest. The Mariners, after forcing the Whalers to punt on their initial possession, drew first blood when senior wide receiver Justin Sumption capped a quick 4-play march by pulling in an over-the-shoulder pass from Croft while falling out of bounds in the end zone.
Sumption's reception - an 11-yarder - gave Homer a 6-0 lead with 5:24 remaining in the first period.
Ravin helped set up the game-opening score earlier by returning Heather's 35-yard punt to the Barrow 35. Following a short run by Fisk, Croft scampered 21 yards to the BHS 11.
The Aurora Conference champion, Barrow managed to get its offense going from there. The Whalers reeled off a 12-play, 66-yard drive over the ensuing seven minutes. Heather plunged his way into the end zone via a 1-yard run on the fourth play of the second quarter and staked the Whalers to a slim 7-6 cushion.
Heather finished the game with a team-high 134 yards rushing on 22 carries.
Barrow threatened to add to its lead late in the second by driving to the Mariner 11 before Felde picked off a pass in the end zone.
The Whalers kept the pressure on at the start of the second half. Barrow took the opening kick and marched 50 yards in eight plays before junior quarterback Anthony Freuan hit senior wide receiver Calvin Miller with a 14-yard scoring toss on a 3rd-and-12 play.
The Whalers didn't have long to celebrate.
Croft electrified the small crowd on hand by fielding the Whalers ensuing kick on a hop at his own 18. After fielding the ball, he darted to his left, scampered through a hole in the first wave of defenders and then raced 82 yards for a touchdown.
Croft's touchdown return - and the ensuing two-point reception by Raven in the back corner of the end zone - knotted the score at 14-14 with 6:54 left in the third.
Croft finished the game with a game-high 152 yards rushing. He also completed six of his 14 passing attempts for 68 yards.
With the victory, Barrow finished its season with a 7-2 record - and avenged a season-opening loss to Homer. The Mariners, who also finished as the state runner-ups in 2011 and 2012, closed out their season at 8-2.