Five hundred and four hours to reflect on a season filled with so much promise and the three hours that brought it all to a sudden end.
That night, on Dec. 9, the Middle Creek Mustangs played a home game against the Wake Forest Cougars for a berth in the 4AA North Carolina High School Football Championship game.
The Mustangs lost in overtime, 20-17.
“It was tough losing that game,” said head coach Randy Ragland, “especially going into it everybody just felt confident that we were going to win.”
Middle Creek dominated every team on its schedule on its way to an undefeated season, Southeast Wake Conference title and No. 1 seed in the state 4AA playoffs. Their average margin of victory was 38.7 points through their 14 wins. They set a school record for the most points ever scored and the least ever surrendered.
“I didn’t envision this year ending any other way but with a state championship,” said Daniel Jackson, a senior defensive back for the Mustangs committed to Army for next season.
But then the game started.
Senior quarterback Dominique Shoffner and his offense, so explosive all season, couldn’t figure out how to move the ball against a Wake Forest defense that featured an NC State commit, a North Carolina commit and talent at every position. The stifled Mustangs had no points through the first three and a half quarters.
The Middle Creek defense was stout in its own right. They had held Wake Forest to 14 points midway through the fourth quarter, but the Cougars were lined up to extend their lead to an almost insurmountable 17 with a field goal opportunity.
This was not how it was supposed to end. The team would be associated, not with all the records or all the wins, but with a loss at home to end its season. One step away from the championship game.
“As a senior and a leader on my team, I had to make something happen,” Jackson said.
He made something happen.
He broke through the middle of the line of scrimmage, blocked and caught the field goal attempt all in one motion and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown to give the Mustangs new life.
“That’s the most incredible play I’ve ever made,” Jackson said. It became both Jackson’s and Ragland’s highlight of the season.
“That memory will stay with me a long time, that’s for sure,” Ragland said. “You won’t see many people make a play like that.”
The Mustangs were back to their old ways. They forced a turnover on the ensuing kick return. Moments later, Shoffner found senior wide receiver Shammond Hicks for 27 yards and another score. In 14 seconds, the Mustangs scored 14 points. The game was going to overtime.
The Mustangs added a field goal in overtime, but just when everything began to happen as it had happened all season, the Middle Creek magic vanished.
“At the end of the day, there’s only one champ,” Jackson said. “You have to be ready to deal with that fact that you might not be it.”
Wake Forest drove to the one-yard line, and on the next play, junior running back Devon Lawrence punched it in. Middle Creek’s historic season came to an abrupt end.
After the game, in the bitter cold, Ragland and his team remained huddled together on the field.
“We just talked about the experiences of the last four years and talked about what a great team and great young men they are and what a joy it was to coach them and how honored I was to be their coach,” Ragland said. “It was just one of those things where we wanted to talk for a while, it didn’t matter what the weather was or how cold it was, we just wanted to stay as long as we could.”
Jackson didn’t know his last high school play would be Lawrence’s dive. He didn’t get to enjoy that moment as he walked toward his sideline for the last time. Jackson’s high school career did not end as he had always thought it would: with a state championship. Now, he and so many of his friends’ high school careers were over.
“(The seniors) made great memories on and off the field and I won’t be playing with any of these guys ever again,” Jackson said. “It helps me to look back on the experiences we had together and those are lifelong memories. I’ll never forget those times.”
Jackson and Ragland each had to watch from home as the Cougars went on to shut out Walter Hines Page Senior High School 29-0 in the state championship game the following week. They could have played in Carter-Finley Stadium and they could have held the championship trophy. But they didn’t.
Middle Creek’s loss cut a deep wound in Jackson, Ragland and everyone associated with the Middle Creek football team. But eventually the wound will heal; it’s already starting to. Both Jackson and Ragland called this season a success, because of all they had accomplished together.
The records still stand.
The wins still count.
The memories still matter.