ELIZABETHTON — Fat Lady wasn’t quite in sight, but she must have been close by.
Ethan Thomas had just reeled off a spectacular run of 86 yards, his second rushing touchdown in four minutes, to extend host Elizabethton’s lead to 35-20 with 3:59 remaining.
The Cyclones had all the momentum. The home crowd inside Brown-Childress Stadium was incessant. And all that was basically left was for the clock to wind on another Elizabethton playoff win.
Except Sullivan North was not ready to bow out.
The Golden Raiders produced a miraculous rally over the next three minutes to send the game to overtime, only to fall short in the extra session. Quarterback Caleb Bailey’s sneak in the overtime upstaged Will Henshaw’s field goal, and the Cyclones escaped with a 41-38 win in the quarterfinals of the TSSAA Class 3A playoffs.
Elizabethton (11-2) advanced to the semifinal round — where it will host CAK next Friday — for the third time in four seasons.
“We expected a lot and still got a little bit more than we expected,” Cyclones coach Shawn Witten said. “It could have gone either way.
“Up 15 points with 3½ minutes left, we thought we had put it away. (North) deserves a lot of credit. In a situation like that, it just comes down to guts.”
Both teams displayed plenty of moxie on this wintry evening, combining to produce what North defensive coordinator Mike Copas called one of the most exciting prep games in which he’s ever been involved.
The last three minutes of regulation were certifiably crazy, with the Raiders (11-2) scoring twice and recovering two kicks — one an onside kick and the other taking a wicked deflection off an Elizabethton player.
“There’s not enough you can say about our kids,” Copas said. “Man alive. Most teams would have folded it up and quit (down 15 points). They never slowed down.
“They put the gas on. We just couldn’t get a stop at the end when we had to have it.”
North actually had a chance to win the game after recovering the second kick, starting that drive at the Cyclones’ 42-yard line with 38 seconds to play. However, Elizabethton, just as it would do in the overtime, solidified defensively and forced a turnover on downs.
The Raiders’ offense took the field first in OT. Cory Rowe, a juggernaut throughout Friday’s contest, battled his way to the 4 on first down but was subsequently stuffed on North’s next two plays. Henshaw, who had a 25-yard field goal blocked at the beginning of the fourth period, converted this time to make it 38-35.
Buoyed by the stop, Elizabethton needed only two plays to win it. Thomas carried to the 2, and on second down Bailey barged into the end zone to set off the party.
“Our defense made one stop. That’s all we needed,” Witten said. “It had nothing to do with coaching tonight. This is all about the kids.”
Thomas was unstoppable for the Cyclones. The sophomore finished with 255 yards and two TDs on 26 carries. Backfield mate Terrence Turner added nine rushes for 122 yards and two scores.
Rowe was North’s rock — as he had been all season. In his final prep outing, the senior quarterback finished with 238 yards on 26 rushes. He had three total touchdowns.
Thompson, also playing his final game for the Raiders, closed with 118 yards on 13 carries.
It’s been a wild, memorable ride for these 18 seniors, who ended their four years at North with a career record of 39-10.
“That was a great game,” Rowe said. “Give props to Elizabethton. Their running backs are amazing. There’s just so much ego on both teams, and you can tell when we play.
“It’s been an uphill climb for this team,” Rowe added, speaking on his four years at North. “To start out we weren’t that good, but we just kept fighting.”