TUNNEL HILL -- With the top seed from the region or the postseason and a region title on the line Friday, Northwest Whitfield High School came up just short, 30-22, at home against Heritage in a wild game that featured massive momentum swings, numerous penalties and turnovers and plenty of explosive plays.
Down by eight points, the Bruins got the ball back with one timeout and 38 seconds remaining on their own 39. They marched to the Heritage 34, but on the game's final play, freshman quarterback Owen Brooker was intercepted in the end zone.
The Bruins best chance to tie the game actually occurred slightly earlier, when they reached the 16 of the Generals with two minutes remaining. However, needing 3 yards on fourth down, Brooker's pass to Gavin Ellis was incomplete -- although Ellis was shy of the sticks anyway.
"We've played really good defense all year, but they have a good mix of run and pass, and we weren't disciplined enough defensively," said Bruins coach Josh Robinson. "We were overplaying and trying to make a play, and we needed to stay with our (game plan)."
The Bruins are "hungry, they want it, and they earned the right to have a game like this," Robinson added. "I'm proud of them."
Northwest (7-3, 4-2 in Region 6-4A) will be the No. 4 seed from the region heading in the postseason, which opens Friday as it will travel to Oconee County -- the No. 1 seed from Region 8. Heritage (8-2, 5-1 in Region 6-4A) will be the second seed in the region heading into next week's first round of Class 4A playoffs.
Friday's game began on a cold fall night with temperatures in the high 30s at kickoff, an the Bruins, gunning for the program's first region title in roughly two decades, began auspiciously, taking the game's opening drive down the field and scoring on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brooker to Kooper Pardee, although the extra point attempt was blocked. Heritage quarterback Nick Hanson evened the score with a 14-yard touchdown run, and a successful point after touchdown by Anderson Britton gave the Generals a lead they would never relinquish.
After another Heritage score, the home side battled back, as Brooker hit Callen Nealey for a 45-yard touchdown on third down to narrow the margin to 14-12 with 9:23 remaining in the opening half, but the two-point play failed. Despite double coverage, Sam Randolph won a jump ball for a 16-yard touchdown, and the Generals -- who last year defeated the Bruins, 56-28, in Ringgold -- extended the margin to 21-12 with 7:41 remaining until the break.
The Bruins took advantage of starting their drive on Heritage's 36, as a Bryce Mantooth 6-yard touchdown rush closed the gap again, to 21-19, with 3:42 left until a halftime. A wild sequence -- in which a trick play on the kickoff return looked to set the Generals up on the Bruins half of the field but instead crumbled with a fumble at the end of the run recovered by Keaton McQuaig -- animated the home crowd briefly, but Brooker tossed a pick right back to the road team, and a 34-yard field goal by Britton at the end of the half made the score 24-19 at the break.
Midway through the third, on fourth down at the home side's 32, Hanson was sacked and stripped of the ball, with Dakota Hickman recovering, setting his team up on the Heritage 40, and they ultimately got a 25-yard field goal by Yahir Zapata to cut the deficit to 24-22 late in the third quarter. Hanson, however, scored his second rushing touchdown of the game from 7 yards out with 11:51 remaining in the fourth, and, though Heritage missed the point-after-attempt, keeping it a one-possession game, it didn't come back to haunt them, as they held the Bruins out of the end zone the rest of the contest.
Heading into next week, Robison said the Bruins need to forget about Friday's loss.
"We'll have to use this week wisely, and we do, too, as coaches, because we're equally disappointed," he said. "You can't dwell on wins or losses."
"We need to get over it. It hurts, but we need to regroup."