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ORANGEBURG – Great Falls quarterback Gaither Bumgardner winced as he pulled off his pads following Friday’s Division II-A state title game.
The shoulder injury that took him out of the game in the fourth quarter no doubt hurt, but it couldn’t match the emotional sting Bumgardner felt.
“I felt like I let my team down,” Bumgardner said. “Win or lose, I wanted to be out there with my team. We’ve been through so much that those guys feel like my family. Not being out there with them hurt worse than anything.”
Worse even, Bumgardner said, than the 14-7 loss to Blackville-Hilda at S.C. State’s Dawson Bulldog Stadium that deprived the Red Devils of their first state title since 1991.
Things could not have started better for the Red Devils, with the defense holding the Hawks to a three-and-out and the offense blowing down the field the first time it touched the ball.
Bumgardner connected with North-South All-Star Jeremy “Red” Simpson for a 13-yard gain and Terrence Jeter picked up 12 yards on a tough up-the-middle run. Bumgardner then found Terrell Hutchinson streaking down the sideline and hit him in stride for a 41-yard touchdown pass less than three minutes into the game. Kyle Heffner drilled the extra point to give his team 7-0 lead.
Another Hawks’ three-and-out and a short punt set Great Falls up at the B-H 42. Simpson had runs of 12 and 16 yards, but an intentional grounding call set the Devils back. A 30-yard field goal attempt was no good, but Blackville-Hilda drew a flag for running into the kicker, extending the Devils’ drive. The end result was the same, though, with Heffner’s 29-yard effort blocked to keep the score at 7-0.
Neither team could muster a first down on the next four drives, but Blackville-Hilda finally struck mid-way through the second. Working from his own 25, quarterback Desmond Brown faked a hand-off and and dashed to his left. He bounced outside, and with Great Falls crowding 10 men in the box, there was no one back to stop him. Brown raced 75 yards for a score. The extra point try was blocked by Simpson.
“In practice, coach told me to take a perfect angle,” said Simpson, who came off the corner to snuff out the attempt. “So that’s what I did.”
That left the score at 7-6, which remained the score at the half.
Great Falls appeared to get just the spark it needed on the third play of the second half. Bumgardner, working from his 31, firing a bullet into the hands of Simpson, who stood open on the sidelines 10 yards down the field. Simpson shook a tackler, bounced to the middle of the field, ran back to the outside and raced inside the Hawks’ five to set up an apparent first-and-goal. A hold was called 30 yards away from the play, though, turning a 64-yard gain into a 20-yard gain. The Devils drove to the Hawks’ 30 before losing a fumble that defensive tackle Okoye Roundtree recovered to end the drive.
Blackville-Hilda responded by piecing together its first sustained drive of the day. Staying in the wishbone offense that won them 10 games coming into the state title tilt, the Hawks methodically moved down the field.
“Our defense was on the field a long time,” Great Falls coach Kenneth Schofield said. “They may have started to wear us down a little.”
After having just two runs of more than three yards in the first half, Blackville-Hilda runners found more success. Darrell White had two carries for 21 yards and Brandell Gilbert ripped off a 12-yard gain. With the Hawks in the midst of an 11-play drive and inside the Red Devil 20, Great Falls stiffened, knocking Blackville-Hilda backwards on consecutive plays. Facing fourth-and-long, the Hawks attempted their first pass of the day, but Jerome Culp drilled White just as he threw the ball to force an incompletion and a turnover-on-downs.
When the Hawks got the ball back near midfield, they again struck quickly. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Brown knifed through the Red Devil front, bounced outside and outran the defense for a 48-yard scoring run. Joe Thomas pounded in a two-point try for a 14-7 Blackville-Hilda lead.
Great Falls had its chances late. Bumgardner connected with tight end Brandon Crawford on a 23-yard completion and the Devils moved to the Hawks 30, but a four-yard loss on a sack on third down forced the Devils to punt with less than nine minutes to go.
“I never like to give up the ball,” Schofield said. “But in that situation, I felt like we had to.”
Schofield said giving up the ball in that spot caused “old Mo” to switch sides. Worse than losing momentum, though, Great Falls also lost its quarterback, with Bumgardner sustaining a shoulder injury on the sack.
Blackville-Hilda drove near midfield, and ate up five minutes of clock in the process. Great Falls had a pair of drives start inside its 20 in the closing seconds, but was forced once to punt, and turned the ball over on an interception with a minute to go to seal the deal.
Blackville-Hilda, 11-3, claimed its second state title in three years with the 14-7 victory.
White was the leading man for Hawks, running for 100 yards and a touchdown. Jeremy Simpson had just over half his team’s total offense, with 84 total yards. Bumgardner threw for 97 yards.
Though the Devils missed out on several scoring chances, Simpson said he was sure the team would find a way.
“I thought we’d pick it up,” Simpson said. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Even in the loss, Simpson, a senior, said it was “a nice feeling” to make it to the state title game.
Schofield urged his team to walk off the field with a sense of accomplishment. He said his team did not play badly.
“Hats off to Blackville-Hilda, they played a great game,” Schofield said. “Sometimes it’s not what you do, it’s what the opponents do, and they played well. We’ve been in tough games all year where we came out on top. Today, we didn’t.”
Schofield said he’d miss seniors like Heffner, Simpson and Culp, but expressed excitement over the prospect of having his big junior class back next year. One of those players is Bumgardner.
“You have no idea what he means to this team,” Schofield said. “Some of the calls he made out there were unbelievable.”
Bumgardner, in reflection, said the pain of an injury and a loss wouldn’t linger for long.
“I’m already looking forward to next year,” he said.