TENNERTON – One play. One pass. One snap. One stop.
One point. That was all that stood between the Buckhannon-Upshur High School Buccaneers and their first win over Bridgeport in two decades.
But under the harsh glare of the Friday night lights, Jake Bowen plowed through the middle of the Buckhannon defense, surging across the goal line on a two-point conversion that put the Indians up 29-28 and ended B-U’s four-touchdown comeback bid.
“Great effort, great energy,” B-U head coach Duane Stoeckle said of his team’s performance after they nearly pulled off the come-from-behind upset. “You’ve got to bring it all game long. [The players] really started believing. That’s what we’ve been trying to get out of them all year long, and it’s in there, and I think now they realize what they can do. I can’t say enough about their effort, energy.
“In 25 years of coaching, that’s one of the greatest efforts that I’ve seen. We had them on the ropes, but couldn’t finish.”
At first, the game looked like it would be a blowout. Two Bridgeport touchdowns and a B-U fumble marked a dismal first quarter for Buckhannon, and when Bowen rumbled to his third score midway through the second quarter, the crisp fall air was feeling pretty chilly on the Buckhannon sideline.
But the Bucs were moving the ball well and steadily marched down the field on a game-changing six-minute drive that ended with quarterback Ryan Strader scampering down the left sideline for Buckhannon’s first points. Curtis Helton turned a high snap on the extra point into two more points to put the game at 21-8 heading into halftime.
“It’s a long fight, four quarters,” Stoeckle said. “Mike Fultineer was one of the guys in the first quarter telling everyone, a lot of game to go, a lot of game to go. So the senior leadership really helped out.”
The Bucs came out of the locker room looking like an entirely different team, especially on defense.
“If you look the first half to the second half, you’ll see our linebackers coming up,” Stoeckle said. “Up front, our defensive line actually held their own, but [Bridgeport] was making little gaps, and our backers were having to catch [Bowen], instead of going to get him. So we just made an adjustment in the second half, saying you’ve got to go downhill and get him, and I think you’ll notice that the linebackers really were the difference.”
Buckhannon received the second half kickoff and needed just three plays to find the endzone. Jacob Loudin nearly broke free on a long pass play, but a shoestring tackle saved the touchdown. Strader made Bridgeport pay anyway, hooking up with Helton for a TD just 1:30 into the second half.
The Indians marched to the B-U 36 on a seven-play drive, but the Buckhannon defense held on fourth down, giving the Bucs the ball back with 6:22 left in the third quarter.
B-U rumbled down the field on another clock-eating, nine-play drive the ended with Strader picking his way into the endzone on a broken play from the six-yard line. Cameron Zuliani booted the extra point through the uprights to knot the game at 21-21.
The Indians again surged into B-U territory on another seven-play drive, but this one too ended with the Buckhannon defense making a huge fourth-down stop with just over 10 minutes left to play.
On the ensuing drives, punters for both teams saw their first action of the game as both Buckhannon and Bridgeport went three-and-out. But the Bucs were winning the field position battle and took over on the Indians’ 39-yard line with 7:07 showing on the clock.
Buckhannon drove to the 25 on two plays, then called a timeout. Strader streaked down the right sideline on the next play, diving for the pylon to give the Bucs their first lead of the game. Zuliani converted the extra point as Buckhannon took a 28-21 lead with 5:51 left in the contest.
But Bowen, one of the best backs in the state, wasn’t done just yet. He capped a seven-play Bridgeport drive with a 19-yard run up the middle. Instead of opting for the tie, the Indians went for two, with Bowen converting to put the score at 29-28.
“Bridgeport is Bridgeport. That was no surprise, we kept the defense on the field,” Stoeckle said of the decision to go for two.
“Bowen is an excellent back,” he added. “He’s the best we’ve seen all year, and we’ve seen some good ones. Bowen is the real deal. The plan was to stop Bowen and make the rest of the team beat us. But he is so good, it’s hard to really contain him. We stopped him from getting big 80-yard runs, but he’s just so good. Hat’s off to him. Hat’s off to our defense too, we bottled him up most of the night.”
The Bucs would get the ball back one last time, but lost yardage on the kickoff return, a block in the back penalty and ultimately an interception thrown by Strader, who was hit just as he released a deep pass, would allow Bridgeport to run out the clock.
“It’s just disappointing, you don’t get many chances at Bridgeport,” Stoeckle said after the game. “It’s been 20 years. Coach [Bill] Plymale and Coach [Adam] Squires beat them the year they went to playoffs [in 1998]. That’s the last time we beat Bridgeport.”
But after getting run over by Greenbrier East on homecoming a week ago, Stoeckle saw plenty of positives this Friday night.
“We had a big heart-to-heart on Monday, basically telling them, you have a lot of talent here, we’re just not using it, and we’ve got to fix it, get rid of the penalties and all the things where we were hurting ourselves,” he said. “And again, senior leadership stepped up. We had a great week of practice, guys really working hard and going hard against each other.”
The coach also praised Strader, who carried the offense much of the game with both his legs and his arm.
“He’s getting better every week,” Stoeckle said. “You’ve seen the maturation of a sophomore quarterback last year to a junior, and it’s really starting to click … He understands what we’re trying to do offensively, and he’s a lot better athletically this year than he was last year – bigger, faster, stronger – and it’s showing.”
The loss dropped the Bucs to 2-3 on the season ahead of next week’s rivalry game at Lewis County. That game is slated to kick off at 7 p.m.
Other scores from around the area:
Robert C. Byrd 21, Lewis County 17
Fairmont Senior 36, Elkins 7
Lincoln 41, East Fairmont 0
University 60, St. Albans 6
Musselman 13, Morgantown 7