NORCROSS -- Wesleyan coach Franklin Pridgen tried to console his players, telling them how proud he was of what they had accomplished the past two seasons. Still, the tears flowed.
Senior quarterback Conor Welton, one of the Wolves' captains, could barely balance himself on his one good leg and when it was time to give the prayer. Then he struggled mightily to get back up.
Wesleyan's season came to an end Friday night with a heartbreaking 20-15 loss to Wilcox County in the Class A quarterfinals. But the Wolves' hopes for a second consecutive state championship may have basically come to an end a week earlier.
Welton injured his right knee when he was hit out of bounds and knocked him into the Wesleyan bench in the second round against Bowdon. He came back to throw the winning touchdown in overtime against the Red Devils and tried to hang in there against Wilcox County, throwing a TD pass in the second quarter.
But when the teams came out for the second half, Welton was wearing a sweatshirt and Wesleyan's offense was missing its leader.
"His heart was up to the challenge, but his knee wasn't," Pridgen said. "He wanted to play and I hoped he'd be OK. But by halftime, it was obvious that he couldn't stay in there."
The No. 1-ranked Wolves, though, almost pulled it out anyway, showing the character that had helped them to a 24-game winning streak.
Spencer Short kicked a 38-yard field goal midway in the second quarter to give the Wolves a 15-14 lead and the Wesleyan defense did its best trying to contain prolific Wilcox County junior quarterback Nick Marshall, who had a hand in all of the Patriots' scoring.
Wesleyan (12-1) stopped the No. 9-ranked Patriots (11-2) on downs once deep in its territory, but couldn't do it a second time.
Wilcox County drove 61 yards to the winning touchdown with 5:06 left, when Marshall hit Nate Moorhouse from 22 yards out.
"We pass a lot. That's what we do," Marshall said. "I have a lot of good receivers and my job is to hit them."
"That quarterback is very, very hard to stop," Pridgen said. "We battled and battled, but couldn't quite contain him."
Wesleyan got the ball back twice, the second time after a Wilcox County fumble. But the Wolves could manage just one first down and their last chance ended when Jonathan Howard picked off a pass by backup quarter Andrew Frerking.
"I know it hurts, but I'm proud of you," Pridgen told his team afterwards. "You have made Wesleyan an elite program. No one can take that away.
"We're a family and we love each other in good times and bad."
Wilcox County, which has won eight games in a row, led 14-12 at halftime despite three turnovers, two on fumbles.
With Welton limited to just a few first-half series, Wilcox County could key on Wesleyan running back Kyle Karempelis. The junior gained 104 yards on 21 carries, but that was about all of the Wolves' offense.
"Conor is a big part of what we've been able to accomplish," Pridgen said. "When he isn't able to play, it obviously hurts. But we hung in there against a very good team. Give Wilcox County a lot of credit. Those players and that coaching staff deserve it."