behind 21-0 to Caroline in Week 9, struck first to silence a boisterous home contingent, taking the opening kickoff 60 yards on 10 plays, Finlay cutting from the middle to the left and eluding senior Jermain Carter en route to a 15-yard TD.
It was 13-0, Bucs, early in the second period, as Jackson and Thomas hooked up on a short slant from the right to the middle of the field, and the junior wideout raced 69 yards into the end zone.
The Bucs’ defense was stellar to that point, recovering a fumble by Caroline on its first possession and forcing a turnover on downs on Kent Island’s 29 when Getz tipped a pass.
“We changed the defense up a little bit: we put four people on the line and stacked three linebackers,” senior Kent Island defensive end Jeff Kuebel said. “We wanted revenge from last time. We knew we could beat them, we just had to put in the effort.
“Our offense likes to encourage the defense, and the defense likes to encourage the offense,” Kuebel added.
Caroline answered with its first score, traveling 60 yards in 10 plays, highlighted by a 27-yard pass from senior QB Cody Pepper to classmate Zach Smith (83 yards rushing) and a 10-yard Pepper keeper. Smith finished the drive with a 3-yard run, and Liam Dowdell’s point-after kick made it 13-7, Bucs.
Kent Island didn’t wait long to retort. Five plays later, on third-and-13 on the 50, Getz hauled in a 48-yard catch down the right sideline, and following a false start, Finlay fought his way into the end zone, a 7-yard score coupling with sophomore kicker Joseph Garvey’s PAT for a 20-7 lead.
Caroline whittled the lead to 20-14 on the opening possession of the second half, a 62-yard foray bolstered by a 23-yard, Joseph Bildstein run and a 13-yard Bailey push; the drive ended with Bailey’s 2-yard TD to make 20-14, Kent Island. Bildstein racked up 44 yards on the ground, combining with Smith to fill in ably for the ailing Manship.
The sides swapped punts on the next three goarounds, before Caroline started on its own 30 with 2:49 left in the third. The drive appeared to be going nowhere, as Bildstein was dropped for a yard loss and Pepper was sacked by seniors Jordan Walker and Jordan Marciano for a loss of 4. But Smith broke the biggest play from scrimmage on the next snap, a 72-yard sprint to Kent Island’s 3, Bailey bringing it home a play later on a 3-yard touchdown for the Bulldogs’ first lead at 21-20.
Getz’ 27-yard TD catch followed, the Bucs pulling back ahead 26-21 after the two-point pass was dropped by Getz, setting the stage for the frantic finish.
Caroline limited the big plays in the previous win over the Bucs, but fell prey this time, as Kent Island notched nine plays of 10 yards or more — including six of 15-plus yards — part of 330 yards total offense. The Bulldogs finished with 311 yards of offense, 257 of it coming on the ground.
“That was one thing we talked about: don’t give them the big plays, don’t put the ball on the ground,” McCormick said. “We gave them the big plays and we put the ball on the ground. In the playoffs, you can’t do that and expect to win.”
The game ended with four straight Pepper incompletions downfield, as Kent Island’s secondary met the ball at every attempt and sealed it.
“Our defense was very prepared for their long passes,” said Getz, who pulls doubleduty as a cornerback. “Our defense has been pretty solid, and throughout the game it was really solid; we just made the plays where we had to make them.”
The schools have now split the last four contests — Kent Island winning during the regular season in 2016 before falling in the region semifinals as the top seed. Caroline blitzed through much of this regular season before dispatching Kent Island and locking up the region’s No. 1 spot, but the Bucs re-discovered some of their mojo in the second half of the Week 9 loss. The momentum carried over to the 48-0, Week 10 shellacking of Queen Anne’s County before the heart-stopping playoff win over the Bulldogs.
“We had a pretty good game plan,” Ferragamo said. “Playing them so recently, gave us the best scout film you can ever have. They were successful, and we knew they weren’t going to change anything. Week 9, we came out flat, we didn’t come out with any passion or energy, so we were a little disappointed in ourselves.
“They were the ones with the swagger and attitude, and we didn’t match it, that’s what we were really concentrating on,” Ferragamo added.
North Caroline will graduate 21 this spring, and it signals the end of the most successful era in program history. The Bulldogs went 37-9 over the last four seasons, including three playoff appearances from 2015 to 2017, the school’s first state semifinal berth in 2015 being the highwater mark for success.
“Our kids played hard, and they left everything on the field, we just didn’t play well enough to get it done in the end,” McCormick said. “They’re a great group of kids. The thing I’m going to remember most about these guys are the great relationships, the time we spent, the stories we had together. I told them before the game, and I told them at the end of the game: our relationship doesn’t end tonight. We had visions of [the season] ending in another three weeks, but our relationships will keep going.”
Added Franklin: “This team right here, it wasn’t just this year. I think everybody looks at this year alone, but we’ve been doing this for four years. Just this season doesn’t show how we’ve been working all our careers, from Pop Warner to now. We were going to fight until the end like we did tonight. We gave it our all.”
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Kent Island quarterback Trent Jackson (2) hangs at the edge of the celebration Friday night after his three touchdown passes helped the Buccaneers top unbeaten North Caroline 33-29 in a Class 2A East semifinal.