It wasn’t exactly how Walton coach Daniel Brunner drew things up when he prepared his game plan at the beginning of the week.
He wasn’t necessarily counting on 10 ties and lead changes throughout his team’s regular season finale against Woodstock, which would decide the Region 4-AAAAAAA champion. He didn’t have a fake punt sitting at the top of his playbook. Nor did he expect to have to defend a one just to hang on to a lead.
“Sometimes you just have to find a way when it matters,” he told his team after the game. “Find a way. Keep fighting.”
That’s what the host Raiders did on Friday, holding off a determined
Woodstock team that racked up 355 passing yards, including 178 and three touchdowns for senior wide receiver Noah Frith. Walton won the game 42-37, stopping a fake punt near midfield with just under eight minutes to go and completing a fake punt pass just a few minutes later to extend a drive that ended in a decisive touchdown.
With the win, the Raiders (10-0, 5-0) won their third region title in school history and first since 2011. They get a top seed in the Class AAAAAAA playoffs, where they will host the No. 4-seed from Region 3-AAAAAAA next week.
“This is big for our program,” Brunner said. “Winning the region here is a pretty special thing. I’m so proud of these guys and what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
And yet, he knew how close things were to going the other way on Friday night.
Despite a slow start offensively, Woodstock picked things up and took a 17-14 lead into the half. Quarterback Garrett Bass was in sync with his wide receivers, passing for 185 yards before the break. On the flip side, the typically composed and effective Walton passer, Austin Kirksey, was having an uncharacteristically off night.
The two teams continued a tight back-and-forth battle into the fourth quarter, which Woodstock entered with a 31-28 lead after a 17-yard touchdown pass from Bass to Frith.
Walton responded on its ensuing offensive possession with an 80-yard touchdown drive, culminating in a 34-yard pass from Kirksey, who was significantly more effective after the break, to Stephan Jean-Francois. That score put the Raiders up 35-31. They would not relinquish the lead, but it took a handful of key plays to hold it.
Woodstock was facing a fourth-and-inches from its own 46 with eight minutes left in the game. Trailing by four points, it lined up to punt the ball away. It would try to let the defense get the ball back and its chances on the next offensive possession.
Instead, it was a direct snap to the fullback, who tried to squeeze up the middle but was stopped at the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs.
Just four plays into Walton’s ensuing possession, it was faced with a similar decision. Facing a fourth-and 16 from their own 49, the Raiders, too, lined up to punt. Punter Charlie Pollock took the snap, looked downfield to Jean-Francois, and tossed a strike for a 34-yard completion to extend the drive.
“We’ve been working on that all year, just waiting for the right time,” Brunner said. “They side up wide open, and we took our chance. I’m glad it worked.”
Five plays later, wide receiver Dominick Blaylock ran the ball in for a 1-yard touchdown. It was Blaylock’s third rushing touchdown of the game and gave the Raiders a crucial two-possession lead at 42-31.
Woodstock had some fireworks left in the tank, as Bass found Frith for a 50-yard touchdown on the next possession, their third touchdown connection of the night, but Walton recovered the final onside kick and ran out the clock for the win.
“These guys are just resilient,” Brunner said. “Even when we weren’t playing like we wanted to be, we just fought and kept chipping away.”
Both teams filled up the stat sheets with impressive individual performances. After a slow start, Walton quarterback Kirksey finished 13-of-19 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Blaylock had five catches for 94 yards to go with his 39 yards and three touchdowns rushing.
Jean-Francois had two catches for 68 yards and a score, and wide receiver Kendall Alford had three for 77 and a score. Running back D.J. Soyoye ran for 129 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown in the first half.
On the other sideline, Woodstock’s Bass finished 27-of-44 for 355 yards and three touchdowns, and Frith had seven catches for 178 yards and three scores.
Both teams will play next week in the first round of the Class AAAAAAA playoffs.