During a season in which they have won cliffhanger after cliffhanger, Bruton High pulled off another last-second victory to reach the state-championship game for the first time in school history. This one came down to a last-minute duel between the place-kickers.
Ben Arbino made his 18-yard field goal with 48.6 seconds left to give the Panthers a three-point lead. And when Handley's Graham Sharples' 32-yard field-goal attempt bounced off of the left upright, Bruton clinched a 10-7 victory in the Division 3 state semifinals.
"I wasn't nervous at all," said Arbino, a 5-foot-9, 140-pound junior, whose huge smile displayed the tooth he chipped while at his hotel in Winchester this weekend. "My dad keeps telling me to treat every kick as the same.
"But this wasn't really the same. We're going to the state championship."
The Panthers (11-2) advance to Saturday's state-title game at Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. They'll face Northside (11-2), a 28-7 winner over Cave Spring on Saturday, in the other semifinal, at noon.
"Wow, these kids once again didn't play the perfect game but they fought to the end," Bruton coach Tracy Harrod said. "You've got this bigger team (Handley), and on that field-goal drive we went straight at 'em.
"The guys up front did their job and we got some hard running from a couple of guys."
The Panthers began possession at their own 41 yard line with 5 minutes, 5 seconds left in the game. Six players carried the ball during the march, and most of the runs were on simple power plays.
Alex Powers' 15-yard run and Lorenzo Taliaferro's 11-yard run were the biggest gainers. The Panthers moved the ball to Judges' 1, before Arbino split the uprights with his kick from the left hash mark.
The Panthers then had to survive one last push by the Region II champion Judges (12-1). David Carter gave them decent field position with a 30-yard kickoff return to the Handley 45.
Quarterback Geremi Long's 8-yard completion, and his runs of 12, 9 and 11 yards moved the ball to the 15 with 3 seconds left, bringing on Sharples. But Sharples shanked the kick and the Panthers needed only to kneel on the final play before celebrating the biggest win in school history.
The key to the win was a ball-control offense — the Panthers ran 62 plays to the Judges 34 — and a terrific defensive effort. Cornerback Elliot Rice led the defense, which limited the Judges to 161 yards, with two interceptions.
The first of those interceptions set up the Panthers' first score. Long badly overthrew Carter on his first throw, and Rice returned the pick from his own 38 to the Handley 22.
Then Taliaferro (26 carries, 132 yards) served notice that he would be effective running the ball, despite the huge cast on his right hand because of a torn thumb ligament. Taliaferro ran for eight yards and a first down, then broke a tackle en route to a 12-yard touchdown run that gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead three minutes into the game.
An exchange of punts — 59 yards for Handley and 21 for Bruton — gave the Judges good field position at their own 48 late in the first quarter. Long moved them inside the 10 with a nifty 29-yard run after faking a pitch, getting an extra five yards for a Bruton face-mask penalty.
Jeremiah Wilson, recruited as a cornerback by Maryland, scored from the 9 on a toss sweep to tie the game at 7. But the Judges rarely moved the ball otherwise.
Wilson's 19-yard run, on a broken play that included linebacker Alex Powers' near-sack of Long, moved the Judges into field-goal range. But Sharples, a James Madison recruit, bounced a 31-yard field-goal attempt off of the left upright with 5.9 seconds left in first half as the score remained tied at halftime.
The second half was mostly a field-position battle, with Bruton punting twice and Handley four times. Neither team seriously threatened until the final minute, when Arbino made his field goal and Sharples missed his.
"I don't know if (Sharples) was nervous, but I was," Rice said. "But I believed in us, and when he missed it I was so happy.
"We're going to the state-championship game."
BRUTON 10, HANDLEY 7Bruton7003 — 10Handley7000 — 7Bru: Taliaferro 12 run (Arbino kick)
Han: Wilson 9 run (Sharples kick)
Bru: FG Arbino 18TEAM STATSBruHanFirst downs176Rushes-yards59-26924-131Passing yards1830Comp-Att-Int1-3-04-10-2Punts-avg.6-295-39.7Penalties-yards9-516-40Fumbles-lost1-10-0INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING: Bruton, Parker 2-6, Adams 7-21, Taliaferro 26-132, Neve 9-19, Rice 8-46, Spencer 2-11, Powers 2-24, Burks 1-3, Frazier 2-7. Handley, Wilson 8-24, Sloane 1-8, Long 9-70, Griffin 1-8, Amos 1-1, Carter 1-2, McDaniel 3-18.
PASSING: Bruton, Neve 1-3-0-18. Handley, 4-10-2-30.
RECEIVING: Bruton, Olvis 1-18. Handley, Carter 2-16, Griffin 2-14.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun