Tuscola rallies to survive gritty Polk County effort

Published 5:34 pm Saturday, August 26, 2023

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You could hear it in Dustin Fry’s voice as he addressed Polk County’s weary warriors in the wake of Friday’s 29-23 loss to Tuscola.

Same thing with senior Antonio Simpson as he delivered his own postgame speech.

A growing belief. A growing confidence. The sense that bigger catches await the Wolverines than the one that got away on an all-too-warm evening in G.M. Tennant Stadium.

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Sometimes, the losses mean more than the wins in the bigger scheme of a season, and perhaps that will prove to be the case for Polk County. Perhaps the Wolverines will learn from their fourth-quarter miscues and the three drives inside the Tuscola 15 that ended in field goals and be better for it.

You have to think that will be the case, especially given what you could hear.

“I’m so proud of the way this team fought tonight,” Fry said. “We weren’t intimiated. We weren’t overwhelmed. We absolutely fought to the end.

“I’m excited the way this team played, the way we battled, how good we can be. It just gets me more energized to come back and get ready for West (Henderson) next week because these guys are playing their tails off right now. I’m so proud of the way they play.”

Tuscola (1-1) scored twice in the fourth quarter to erase a nine-point deficit, taking its six-point advantage with 7:02 remaining on Bryant Oancea’s 49-yard pass reception. What followed felt like a game in its own right, with twists and turns and players steadily cramping to prolong the drama.

Polk had a second-and-1 near midfield and moved no further, turning the ball over on downs. Tuscola had a fourth-and 2 at the Wolverine 43 and failed to convert, returning possession to the Wolverines. A fumbled lateral and return on Polk’s next play gave the Mountaineers the ball at the Polk 10. Tuscola eventually lined up for a 25-yard field goal with 1:31 to go, only to see Simpson block it.

The drama, though, would end there, with the Wolverines unable to cross midfield before the final whistle.

It seemed an almost anticlimatic end to a back-and-forth battle that even prompted one of the officials on the field to remark midway through it that “this is quite a ballgame.”

Quite a game, indeed.

Tuscola scored on the game’s opening drive, plowing 73 yards in seven plays, with Gavin Langley scoring from the 14. Polk responded with a lengthy drive that at one point reached the Mountaineer 4 before the Wolverines settled for the first of Billy Booker’s three field goals (a new school single-game record) from 25 yards out.

A botched punt snap set up Polk’s next score, Simpson’s 14-yard grab of a Lawson Carter pass with 17 seconds left in the opening quarter. The Mountaineers came right back to retake the lead on Jed West’s 2-yard run and 2-point conversion, and when Polk stopped another Tuscola threat at its 15 with 28 seconds remaining in the first half, it seemed the Mounties’ 14-10 lead would stand at the break.

But the Wolverines moved to the 33 with a second left, and Fry scanned his play card and called a long pass to Simpson. Carter delivered a perfect ball down the center of the field to the senior receiver, who had raced past the Tuscola secondary. He hauled in the pass and sprinted to the end zone, with Booker’s extra point giving Polk an unexpected 17-14 halftime edge.

“I went into this night thinking that we’ve got nothing to lose. I’m not going to leave any plays on the call sheet,” Fry said. “I felt good with that last call. It was just a great throw and catch. Lawson couldn’t have placed that ball more perfectly and Tony ran a phenomenal route. Hats off to those guys. All I do is call it.”

Polk took the opening kickoff of the second half and marched to the Tuscola 13 before settling for a Booker 30-yard field goal. A Keaundrae Green interception then set up another Booker boot, this one from 23 yards, to give the Wolverines a 23-14 lead with 2:18 left in the third period.

And then the Mountaineers shifted momentum shifted to the opposite side of W.J. Miller Field. Tuscola drove 61 yards in eight plays, with West tossing a 19 yard touchdown pass to Jonas Howard to trim the deficit to two. Polk followed with a three-and-out possession, and the Mountaineers again marched to the end zone, with West turning a 1st-and-25 into a perfect strike to Oaneca for what proved to be the game-winning score.

But not without a determined Polk County squad nearly finding a way to rally and win.

“I hate losing,” Fry said. “But playing both ways, on a hot night, and we were still in the game at the very end. We should have won the game.

“There are a couple of calls I’d like to have back toward the end, but it just gets me excited for what we have the rest of the year. I’m energized to come back to work and keep rolling and make this the last loss of the season. I love this team. I’m excited about coaching them.”

As you could hear.