RIDGELY — He wore a cowboy hat and had a big grin on his face. Both were appropriate.

Senior quarterback Reese Poffenbarger had just led Middletown High’s football team to a 28-14 victory over North Caroline in a Class 2A state quarterfinal Friday evening at Bulldogs Stadium.

Poffenbarger ran for all four touchdowns for the Knights, setting up his touchdowns with a combination of runs and throws.

The Knights’ defense also had a large hand in the outcome, creating four takeaways (all interceptions) and shutting out North Caroline in the second half.

The third-seeded Bulldogs capitalized on a blocked punt and scored with nine seconds remaining in the first half to tie the game at 14-14. But the second half belonged to the sixth-seeded Knights.

Knights head coach Collin Delauter explained the victory this way: “Really, just playing together as a team. They were a great, physical, hard-nosed team. We challenged the guys at halftime. They were being physical and it was how are we going to respond and they showed up in the second half. I’m just lucky I have a group of guys that like to play as hard as they do.”

Poffenbarger finished with 55 yards on the ground and 171 yards through the air, connecting on 15 of 26 passes. He also punted the ball well, pinning the Bulldogs back to their 3-yard line in their first possession of the second half.

“He does a fantastic job. He’s a great leader for us,” Delauter said of his quarterback. “I’ll tell you what, I know he’d say the same thing, the guys up front make all the difference in the world for him.”

“We all wear cowboy hats to games and stuff,” explained Poffenbarger about his lid. “My brother was wearing it on the sideline and I said, ‘Let me wear that thing.’ We joke around and call ourselves gunslingers. We just had to play really hard. They emulated a lot of what Walkersville did, the team we played the game before. It actually helped us a lot being able to see the same stuff. They presented a lot of very good offensive backs, so we knew we had to stop them. Defensively, they were big up front and we just had to execute really.”

The Knights (10-2) advance to travel to second-seeded Elkton (12-0) for their state semifinal.

North Caroline suffered its first loss of the season, finishing 11-1.

“This is not how you want the journey to end,” Bulldogs head coach James McCormick said. “I just told the seniors that when we were giving hugs, when they were leaving the field, but sooner or later it’s got to end, it’s just not always how you think it is. We made some mistakes. I think we need to do a better job of coaching, give our kids opportunities. Middletown had a good game plan. When we made mistakes they capitalized and that really was the difference.”

Middletown capitalized on three of its four takeaways. Jalen Huskey intercepted a pass on North Caroline’s first possession and the Knights went to work at the Bulldogs’ 15-yard line. A 10-yard hands-to-face penalty and North Caroline’s defense created a fourth-and-seven at the 13. A 30-yard field-goal attempt by Paul McHugh then sailed wide left, but the Bulldogs were flagged for running into the kicker. Now facing only a fourth-and-two, Poffenbarger ran up the middle for four yards for first-and-goal at the 4. After the Bulldogs stuffed a run, Poffenbarger faked inside and easily scored on a keeper into the right side of the end zone. McHugh’s first of four point-after kicks split the uprights with 6:51 left in the first half.

North Caroline countered with its best possession of the night, highlighted by a 36-yard pass completion by senior quarterback Wyatt LaClair to junior tight end Casey Kercheval to the Knights’ 22. On a third-and-four, senior running back Zamir Dennis gained 14 yards on a sweep to the 1, then ran the ball into the end zone from there to cut the Knights’ lead to 7-6 with 4:33 left in the first quarter. Kyler Boyd’s extra-point kick was blocked.

Middletown’s defense and a false-start penalty led to a Bulldogs punt midway through the second quarter. The Knights offense took over at North Caroline’s 40. Five plays later Poffenbarger scored on a 1-yard sneak with 5:13 left in the half. Leading up to the TD, Poffenbarger passed to Cole Porter for a 15-yard gain and, after a roughing-the-passer penalty, the quarterback ran 16 yards off right tackle to the 1.

North Caroline drove to the Knights’ 33 on the next possession before turning the ball over on downs. Middletown countered with a drive to the Bulldogs’ 12 that included a 44-yard pass connection from Poffenbarger to Porter. A blocking-in-the-back penalty pushed the Knights back to the 20. After three incompletions and a 5-yard penalty, McHugh attempted his second field goal, but the kick was blocked and Kendron Wayman scooped the ball up and carried to the Knights’ 15. On a third-and-five with 15 seconds left in the half, LaClair found Trenton Hillard who caught the ball and powered his way to the left pylon for a 10-yard touchdown pass. LaClair then passed to Jalen Carroll for two points to tie the game at the half.

North Caroline’s second-half possessions resulted in three interceptions and a punt.

An interception by Porter gave the Knights the ball at North Caroline’s 32. On a third-and-11, Kadin Fisher took a screen pass 19 yards to the 15. On a third-and-10, Poffenbarger hit Gage Queen on a 9-yard hook in the middle to the 6. A sneak for two yards and a first down, a 3-yard run by Fisher, and another sneak by Poffenbarger moved the ball into the end zone. McHugh’s kick put the Knights up 21-14 five seconds into the fourth quarter.

North Caroline produced one first down before punting on its first possession of the fourth quarter. With time becoming a factor and Middletown shutting down the Bulldogs’ running game, LaClair tried a short pass to Dennis on a third-and-10, but pressure by Zach Brady hindered the quarterback’s delivery and Justice Funk intercepted, setting up the Knights at NC’s 10. On a third-and-11, Poffenbarger found an open lane up the middle and scored the game’s final TD with 2:44 to play, essentially sealing the victory.

“It was a good game; we played our hearts out,” said Wayman, who is headed to Wake Forest University to play next year. “It just didn’t end the way we thought it would, but it’s okay. We still love one another and we did it together.”

“Our kids fought. They competed,” McCormick said. “They did everything we asked them to do. You can’t make those kind of mistakes in the playoffs and have success, so that’s on me. As coaches, we’re going to have to look at it, figure it out, and make sure it doesn’t happen next year.

“This is a great senior class, awesome kids,” McCormick added. “A lot of these guys I’ve known since they were little guys … we’re going to miss them, but we’ve got a special group of juniors and sophomores too. Those guys are going to move up and we’re going to start working in the offseason, get a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, make sure we’re ready for next season.”

Hillard expressed his appreciation for his teammates and the Bulldogs’ coaching staff: “A lot of us who played together since Pop Warner, probably about 11 of us, so we’ve been running through since like second and third grade, and we added some guys from QA (Queen Anne’s) that came from their youth program. We just all built together. We’re just a big family and we hang out all the time. So, we still love each other.”

He described his four years playing for North Caroline: “Personally, there was ups and downs, but I definitely wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love these guys, all these coaches. I’m just happy to be the man I’ve become and I’m thankful for them.”

Follow me on Twitter @csknauss / email me at cknauss@stardem.com

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