SYKESVILLE, Md. — If football teams got merit badges like the Boy Scouts, Williamsport would have one for resiliency.
The Wildcats have played the entire 2021 season zigging when they’ve been zagged and standing up again before a 10 count.
But Williamsport ran out of zigs and couldn’t avoid the final bell. It was an unceremonious end to a jigsaw puzzle of a season as No. 2-seed South Carroll battled to a 27-7 victory on Friday in the Class 2A-1A state quarterfinals to end the seventh-seed Wildcats’ furthest-ever venture into the playoffs.
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The Cavaliers (11-0) scored the final 20 points of the game, turning away every advance by Williamsport (7-5) with the help of turnovers and penalties.
“I think this season proved these guys could answer, answer, answer,” said Williamsport head coach Tim Small. “You can’t always control what happens to you. You can control your response. We preach that. We just ran out of answers.”
Williamsport gave South Carroll everything it could handle with physical defense to stay in the game. The Wildcats gave the Cavaliers a scare near the end of the second quarter when Cayden Palamar’s hit took quarterback Ryan Barnard out of the game for the final 1:43 of the half.
But South Carroll set the tone for the win with its middle two of four touchdowns to break a 7-7 tie and take away the game. The Cavaliers kept the advantage with a couple of key interceptions and a lopsided penalty advantage.
“Penalties is what killed us,” Small said. “The more disciplined team won tonight. We’ve had that problem through the year. It’s not a problem of malice. It’s problem of over-enthusiasm over effort.”
After a scoreless first quarter, AJ Rodrigues put South Carroll on the board with a 13-yard TD run at the 11:19 mark of the second quarter for a 7-0 lead.
Williamsport went to work, trying to run before unveiling a bigger passing attack than it had shown over the last five weeks of the season. The Wildcats leaned on a Maryland-I formation running attack after losing Eli Fleming — their second quarterback of the season — to an injury.
But over the course of the final weeks, senior receiver Brady Neff moved under center and became more comfortable passing the ball.
Williamsport moved the ball consistently downfield, but had trouble once it got inside of South Carroll’s 25.
Neff remedied that by moving right with a pistol snap, then cutting back to the middle on what amounted to a draw to outrun South Carroll’s defense for a 47-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7 with 8:56 remaining in the half.
The tie lasted all of 22 seconds, as Barnard hit Logan Miller streaking down the right sideline for a 79-yard touchdown on the first play after the kickoff. South Carroll started to turn the tide on the quick score, taking a 14-7 lead into halftime.
“When we answered when Brady had the scramble and it was 7-7 there, (South Carroll) came out right away,” Small said. “(Defensive back) Ryan Miller was in position, but (the ball) kind of tipped and it went the other way.
"What can you do? They just made a play.”
Still, Williamsport seemed very much in the game, trailing by only seven.
On their first possession of the second half, the Wildcats drove in an effort to tie the game, but Neff was picked off by Noah Strzelczyk at the Cavaliers 24.
South Carroll then drove 76 yards in five plays, with Barnard connecting with Miller on a 10-yard scoring strike in the front right corner of the end zone for a 21-7 lead with 5:59 left in the quarter.
“It turned around when game went to 21-7,” Small said “We got behind the eight ball a little bit. At that point we got down a bit, but they didn’t quit. … They didn’t quit.
However, penalties and another interception kept Williamsport out of the end zone.
“(South Carroll) did a good job executing coverage against our young talent out there — Corry (Nelson Jr.) and Ceontae (Wilmore)," Small said. "Ryan Miller, who is a senior, stepped up and Thomas Detrick stepped up. They did a good job taking away some of our strengths and some of the things we surprised some teams with recently.”
South Carroll put the game away with 9:15 remaining when Barnard scrambled one more time, this time buying the time to find Jackson Strzelczyk, who caught a tipped ball while sitting at the back of the end zone for 12-yard touchdown and the 27-7 lead.
From there, the Wildcats became more desperate as the remaining time ticked away.
They moved down to the South Carroll 4 for a chance to cut the deficit, but a completion to Darby Bryant was brought back by a holding call. Two more penalties moved the ball back to the Williamsport 47.
“(The Wildcats) were looking forward to playing further than this,” Small said “They worked really hard this week and we had a good plan, but (Barnard) made plays, (Rodrigues) made plays and (Logan Miller) made plays down the stretch.”
With that, a season filled with COVID concerns and multiple changes in personnel and offenses due of injuries came to an end.
“Multiple playoff wins … three winning seasons … they set a standard that hopefully others can look up to,” Small said. “So proud of them. We kept trying to adjust and kept trying to move some personnel around trying to answer what (South Carroll) was doing. We just came up a little short in that department tonight. … It’s not anybody’s fault.
“I think the next two weeks will show that (South Carroll is) a pretty good football team.”
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: MPSSAA playoffs: Williamsport takes on South Carroll in quarterfinal