COLUMBIA — As Silver Bluff’s players lined up on the sideline for one final time, the Bulldogs struggled to hold back the tears.
Silver Bluff fell short of its ultimate goal Friday night, losing the Class AA Division II championship game to Batesburg-Leesville, 28-24.
Silver Bluff coach Al Lown said this group of Bulldogs had nothing to be ashamed of. After reaching the Lower State finals the past two years, Silver Bluff played in its first championship game in 12 years.
“Nobody can doubt our heart, I can tell you that,” Lown said.
Trailing 28-24 with 3:25 to play, Silver Bluff (12-2) drove inside the Batesburg-Leesville 10. But Jaylen Lawrence’s desperation pass as time ran out was intercepted by Dontavious Morris at the goal line.
“We put Shaquez Wright out there on a post,” Lown said. “(Lawrence) got a little pressure and tried to hit Shaquez, you know, it was one of those things.”
The final play set off a wild celebration for the Panthers and their fans. Batesburg-Leesville (12-2) had twice lost state championship games to Silver Bluff, in 1986 and 2001. In the 2001 game, Batesburg-Leesville failed on a 2-point conversion late in the game and lost, 21-20.
Silver Bluff senior lineman James Jacks was crestfallen after the loss.
“To get that close, it makes it that more painful,” he said.
Then he congratulated the play of both teams.
“I’m so proud of this team,” he said. “We got down in the first half and kept on fighting. Our players bought into everything we told them and the coaches made some great half-time adjustments.
“But, hey, hat’s off to Batesburg. They got it done when they had to get it done.”
Batesburg-Leesville coach Jerry Brown, who came out of retirement to coach the Panthers, won his fifth state championship as head coach. He also won at Spring Valley and Berkeley.
Brown’s team was up to the challenge Friday night at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium.
The Panthers used a 20-point second quarter to take a 20-12 lead at the half. But the Bulldogs made adjustments and came out with a pair of touchdown drives to retake the lead.
Silver Bluff scored on Shaquez Wright’s 6-yard run late in the third quarter, then forged ahead to take a 24-20 lead on Lawrence’s 1-yard sneak with 9:02 to play.
Batesburg-Leesville’s triple-option attack, which had been shut down for much of the second half, finally came to life. The Panthers scored with 3:25 to play on Jac’quiel Chandler’s 2-yard run, and Terrance Wilson’s conversion run put them ahead 28-24.
Silver Bluff began the ensuing possession at its 35 and quickly moved into Batesburg-Leesville territory. With Lawrence scrambling, the Bulldogs moved to the Panthers’ 8. But time was running out, and the Bulldogs lost six seconds off the clock when an illegal shift call moved the ball back to the 13.
Lawrence’s next pass was incomplete, and that gave Silver Bluff one more shot at the end zone.
But Morris stepped in front of a pass intended for Wright, and Batesburg-Leesville had its first title since 2005.
“No comment,” Lown said of the time the Bulldogs lost on the penalty. “We knew. That didn’t have anything to do with us losing.”
The two teams sized each other up like heavyweight boxers early in the game. The first four possessions ended in punts, and Silver Bluff struck first after putting together the game’s first sustained drive.
Wright followed a big block by Alex Graham into the end zone for a 4-yard score with 1:11 to play in the first quarter.
Batesburg-Leesville didn’t flinch, and the next 2 minutes of elapsed time proved to be pivotal. First, Iguavian Tolen rushed for 75 yards, and Jacquiel Chandler found the end zone three plays later on a 2-yard keeper to put the Panthers ahead 7-6.
A personal foul penalty on Silver Bluff on the point-after attempt resulted in a 15-yard penalty, and Batesburg-Leesville coach Jerry Brown gambled with an onside kick. The Panthers recovered, and two plays later Chandler scored again on a 10-yard run.
Batesburg-Leesville scored its third touchdown of the half on a more conventional drive. This one covered 66 yards in eight plays, and Rickie Smith’s 9-yard run put the Panthers up 20-6.
Silver Bluff responded with a touchdown drive just before the half. Facing a fourth and five at 20, Wright took a screen pass from Lawrence and burst up the middle for the score. The extra point attempt was blocked, and the Bulldogs trailed 20-12 at the half.
Silver Bluff played much of the game without two-way starter McKenzie Wilson, who suffered a knee injury.
“Our kids fought hard,” Lown said. “That’s all I can say, I’m proud of them.”