LILBURN - In a wild finish, the Berkmar Patriots survived the Meadowcreek Mustangs' upset bid, 21-10, Friday night in Region 8-AAAAA action, qualifying for the football playoffs for the second straight year for the first time in school history.
"This is the second-most diverse school in the state," Berkmar head coach Wendell Early said. "Most of these kids don't grow up playing football. But qualifying two years in a row for the playoffs is a statement about these kids and how they have grown as football players."
But Berkmar (7-2, 4-2) had to earn it, salting the win away on a controversial play in the waning moments of the game.
With the hosts clinging to a 15-10 lead with less than a minute to play, Meadowcreek (0-9, 0-6) spent its last timeout to force a Berkmar punt on fourth-and-three from the Mustangs' 36.
However, the officials blew the whistle and put the ball in play without giving Meadowcreek a chance to line up. J.J. Austin took the handoff and raced 36 yards untouched and unimpeded for the touchdown with 33 seconds remaining. The Meadowcreek coaching staff pleaded their case but to no avail.
"These kids are getting better," Meadowcreek head coach Reggie Perry said. "I won't complain about that play ... but this loss hurts. It really hurts."
In the first quarter, Berkmar appeared headed for an easy victory, taking advantage of two Meadowcreek turnovers early to jump out to a 15-0 lead.
Berkmar linebacker Antonio Harris dislodged the ball from Meadowcreek quarterback C.J. Hancock's hands and Kevin Minter recovered the ball on the Mustangs' 4. Three plays later, James Eminue scored on a 1-yard run. J.J. Austin bulled his way into the end zone on the two-point conversion, giving the Patriots an 8-0 lead.
On the Mustangs' next possession, James Holmes intercepted an underthrown ball and returned it 20 yards to the Berkmar 47. The Patriots then marched 53 yards in seven plays, capping the drive on a 14-yard scoring strike from quarterback Ben Sharp to Terence Jeffers. Cris Lievano added the extra point to put Berkmar up 15-0 with 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
But Meadowcreek seemed determined to earn its first win of the season, regrouping on offense.
The Mustangs drove 53 yards in nine plays, breaking into the scoring column with a 43-yard field goal by Sager Patel to cut the deficit to 15-3 with 2:15 left in the second quarter.
Late in the second quarter, Meadowcreek's defense smothered Sharp deep in Berkmar territory. After Sharp left on a stretcher giving the thumbs-up sign, Berkmar was forced to punt, leaving the Mustangs excellent field position at the Patriots' 46.
Following a short loss, Justin Thomas picked up 31 yards on a screen play with 18 seconds left. Then Lamar Persons hauled in a 19-yard TD pass from Hancock, holding on after a vicious lick with seven seconds left in the half. Patel's PAT cut the Berkmar lead to 15-10.
The second half, however, was dominated by stout defensive efforts by both teams.
Meadowcreek's offense suffered a severe blow early in the third quarter when Hancock, also playing defensive back, left the game with an injury and did not return.
"We went in at halftime and had a serious talk," said Holmes, the Berkmar senior defensive back who finished with one interception. "We weren't worried, but we knew we had seriously underestimated Meadowcreek. They were playing a lot harder than we thought they could play.
"But getting to make school history makes me really proud to be on this team."
Holmes managed to help shut down Meadowcreek's passing attack, limiting the Mustangs to just seven yards through the air after giving up 114 in the first half. Meadowcreek outgained Berkmar 224 yards to 169, but couldn't muster any long sustain drives in the second half.
Berkmar was paced offensively by Austin, who had 51 yards on six carries, while Jeffers caught five passes for 53 yards. Sharp was 5 of 9 passing for 53 yards.
Hancock was 10 of 13 passing for 88 yards before he went down with an injury for Meadowcreek. Thomas rushed for 72 yards on 16 carries.