ROGERSVILLE — With all of Hawkins County on its feet and a playoff berth at stake Volunteer came up with a goal-line stand for the ages Friday night in Big Red Valley.
Volunteer linebacker Jordan Sandidge stopped Cherokee fullback Tyler Carter 4 inches short of the goal line as the final seconds melted off the clock, ending the Chiefs’ season while preserving a 19-15 victory for the Falcons.
“It was life and death down there,” Sandidge said amid the throng of screaming Falcon fans who charged the field. “I’m really not scared of anybody — I take on everybody just the same.”
The Five Rivers Conference victory gave Volunteer its first win in Rogersville since 1991 and back-to-back victories over the Chiefs for the first time since 1982.
More importantly, the win kept Volunteer’s season alive, sending the Falcons to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Volunteer coach Scott Rider said. “Last year, getting to the playoffs was kind of our goal.
“We’ve experienced that now, so we hope to take the next step and play a little better this year in the playoffs.”
The playoffs were the furthest thing from Rider’s mind after Cherokee grabbed control of the game in the second quarter.
Volunteer jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead, but Cherokee’s Landon House intercepted a pass and returned it 63 yards for a score. After a fake extra point led to a two-point conversion, Cherokee had the lead.
Carter finished off a 79-yard drive with a 2-yard scoring run just before the half to give the Chiefs a commanding 15-7 lead.
With Volunteer’s playoff hopes fading, the Falcons turned to Keith Cradic in the second half and the senior delivered.
“Keith’s been our leader all year long,” Rider said. “He thrives on big games and in the second half, he put us on his shoulders.”
Cradic used his arm and his feet to engineer a scoring drive in the third quarter that pulled Volunteer within 15-13.
The Falcons converted on third down three times on the drive, which was capped off when Shane Barlow busted loose for a 24-yard touchdown run.
There was some debate on whether or not Barlow would play after he left the field on a stretcher last Friday, but a week of rest left the senior running back looking refreshed.
Barlow finished with 59 yards on 14 carries and a pair of scores.
Cradic struck again late in the fourth quarter, scoring from 20 yards out on a bootleg to give Volunteer the lead with 3:05 to go in the game.
“He just wasn’t going to be denied on that last touchdown,” Rider said. “We just scored too quick — we gave them too much time, but you have to have faith in your defense.”
Rider’s faith was pushed to the absolute limit as Cherokee converted on fourth-and-11 to kick-start a frantic drive that brought the Chiefs all the way to the 6-yard line with 13 seconds left.
With no timeouts remaining, Carter took the handoff and appeared bound for the game-winning score as he picked up momentum.
But Sandidge saved the day, stopping Carter inches short. The clock ran out before Cherokee could get to the line and spike the ball.
“It’s an old cliche, but we just ran out of time,” Cherokee coach Mike Sivert said. “We just didn’t have any gas left there at the end.”
House paced Cherokee (5-5, 3-4) with 75 yards rushing while Carter added 62.
David Mowell led Volunteer (5-5, 4-3) with 81 yards on two carries with 70 of those yards coming on a first-quarter run that set up the Falcons’ first score. Cradic threw for 122 yards and also rushed for 32.
Rider said he has told his players all year that they are on a journey and the playoffs are the goal. Now that the Falcons are in the postseason, he hopes they’re up for another long road trip.
“Our kids have a lot of heart, character and unity,” Rider said. “That’s what it takes to win ballgames.”