By Brad Fauber
NOKESVILLE -- Warren County scratched and clawed and fought for everything that it could against No. 4 Kettle Run in the Region II, Division 3 quarterfinals on Friday night.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats trailed for nearly the entire football game, and found themselves down 11 points with just more than two minutes to play in the game. But the late deficit didn't break the Wildcats' will, and Warren County, led by senior quarterback Tyler Post, orchestrated a 60-yard drive that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Post to junior Jontae Rollins.
On the two-point conversion attempt, Post connected with fellow senior Chris Larsen to bring the Wildcats to within a field goal of tying Kettle Run with 43 seconds remaining.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, their hope of a miraculous comeback required a successful onside kick recovery. That recovery didn't happen, as Kettle Run fell on the onside attempt to seal a dramatic 24-21 win.
"The fight was there all game," said Wildcats coach Tony Tallent. "You're talking 50 seconds left, and we thought we were going to win the game."
Friday was the second time in three weeks that the two Evergreen District rivals had met on the football field. Kettle Run (9-2) won the first meeting on Oct. 26 in a 28-21 double-overtime thriller.
In that first meeting, the Cougars racked up nearly 300 yards rushing against Warren County's defense, and Kettle Run looked to be well on its way to a repeat performance after the Friday night's opening drive.
The Cougars marched the ball right down field on their first possession, using 14 plays -- all runs -- to go 65 yards. Junior De Jackson plunged into the end zone from three yards out to put Kettle Run up 7-0 with 5:54 left in the first quarter.
"We came out in a new formation tonight, and I think that hurt them," said Cougars coach Jeff Lloyd. "But in a playoff game, it's not supposed to be easy, and it wasn't."
Warren County (8-3) answered right back with a long drive of its own.
Starting at their own 28-yard line, the Wildcats drove the 72 yards to the end zone. Post proved why he was named the Evergreen District's Offensive Player of the Year by hitting five of six pass attempts on the drive.
Post found Rollins on a big third-down conversion that netted 17 yards to the Cougars' 34-yard line, and then found Larsen along the sideline to set the Wildcats up at the Kettle Run 11. On the next play, Post hit Matt Nicholson on a wide receiver screen, and Nicholson made a defender miss near the line of scrimmage before scampering into the end zone to tie the game at 7-all.
"I felt like we moved the ball. They stacked the box and we weren't able to run a whole lot. We did split a couple, but we weren't able to sustain long running drives," Tallent said. "We did come out with a good game plan as far as throwing the ball around."
Warren County had a golden opportunity after a bad snap on a Kettle Run punt attempt on the next possession gave the Wildcats the ball at the Cougars' 41. But Kettle Run's defense was came up big with an interception by Evan Szklennik that was returned 63 yards, all the way to the Warren County 11-yard line.
An intentional grounding penalty on Kettle Run prevented a touchdown opportunity, but the Cougars did cash in on a 36-yard field goal by Szklennik with 7:10 left in the first half.
Warren County drove to the Cougars' 28 on its next possession, but Post's second-down pass was tipped at the line and picked by Carlos Vegerano, who returned it to the Wildcats' 26.
That set up a 30-yard touchdown strike from Vegerano to running back Josh Tapscott to give the Cougars a 17-7 lead at the half.
Kettle Run's defense forced Post into four interceptions in the game. Post finished 19 for 33 for 197 yards and three touchdowns.
"Our defense was huge tonight," Lloyd said. "We were able to get pressure on Post tonight and get to him."
Warren County finally found the end zone again midway through the fourth quarter when Post found Zane Grudzinski wide open over the middle for a 40-yard touchdown. A bad snap on the extra point attempt kept the score at 17-13 with 6:45 to play.
But Kettle Run snatched the momentum right back with what was probably the play of the game.
Vegerano fielded the ensuing kickoff at the 16-yard line and raced down the sideline for an 84-yard score to put Kettle Run up 24-13, killing what momentum the Wildcats had built with the previous score.
Kettle Run will travel to face top-seeded Skyline next week for the second time this season. The Cougars beat the Hawks 28-6 in Nokesville on Sept. 28.
For Tallent, Friday's loss means saying goodbye to the most successful group of seniors in Warren County history.
"It's tearing my heart out right now," Tallent said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org