APEX — The victory-formation hand signal for Middle Creek is a V-formation with palms touching and fingers spread. After the Mustangs defeated rival Garner 24-21 on Friday night, they added a few leaps of joy.
Middle Creek – which clinched the victory when Brant Grisel hit Jay Schuller on a quick slant pass on fourth-and-6 at the Garner 15 with 48 seconds to play – advanced to its first regional championship game in school historybefore a crowd of more than 4,000 fans at Mustang Stadium.
“It’s a situation where we have to win that play,” Middle Creek coach Mike Castellano said, “and we won multiple plays on that drive.”
The drive took the final four minutes and two seconds off the clock and included two fourth-down conversions.
The Mustangs (12-2) will host Wake Forest (11-3), a 27-24 winner over Millbrook, next Friday in the N.C. 4AA Eastern Regional championship game.
The Mustangs took the 24-21 lead on an 18-yard field goal by Michael Rubino on the final play of the first half. Then both teams went on to play their best defense of the season in the final two quarters.
A Garner offense that came in averaging seven touchdowns a game was held to just 150 yards.
“We just did what we try always to do on defense,” Middle Creek defensive lineman Terry Patterson said. “We tried to squeeze their blockers enough where our linebackers could get there and make plays. We knew if we shut down their run game, we would be OK.”
Standout junior running back Nyheim Hines was limited to a season-low 73 yards on 23 carries. The Mustangs held him to 86 yards in their first meeting and are the only team to hold him below 175 yards in a game this season.
“We came in with a good scheme. We had a scheme for all aspects of the game,” said Middle Creek linebacker Tom Hartshorn, who had one fumble recovery. “We looked to limit (Hines) inside and keep him outside and out of the open field and then hurry to the ball and get him.”
After recovering a pooched opening kickoff, Middle Creek went 33 yards in three plays as Stuart Fine rushed 4 yards for a touchdown. On the next Mustangs drive, a 17-yard screen pass from Brant Grisel to Curtis Burston capped a 16-play, 90-yard drive.
Garner’s first score came on a 6-yard pass from Brighton Hudson to Brayden Sims to make it 14-7 with 7:57 until halftime.
Then the Trojans’ punt-block team surprisingly took over the game.
Middle Creek came into the game with 14 blocked kicks and seven kick or defensive returns for touchdown, but roles were reversed in the first half.
Garner’s second score came when Gregory Stewart blocked a Michael Rubino punt in the end zone that Brayden Sims recovered for a score. Middle Creek responded with a 43-yard score from Grisel to Jay Schuller, but the Mustangs’ next drive ended with Sims getting a hand on Rubino’s punt.
The ball landed behind Middle Creek’s coverage in the hands of Stewart, who burst down the sideline for a 43-yard return to tie the game at 21 with 59.4 seconds to play in the half.
“It was a big point of emphasis, something we worked on all week,” Sims said. “The really big splits they leave on their punt formation gives you some opportunities if you can get there in time. We kind of just all got there in time the first time. The second time I just kind of stuck my hand out and got it.”
“I think because they (Garner) were just bringing two guys, our guys in the back took the play off and that’s not acceptable,” Castellano said. “We corrected it at halftime and I thought in the second half we did a better job of blocking a punt ourselves, and downing a punt at the 1 and flipping special teams to our advantage.”
The Mustangs answered, though, with what turned out to be the game-winning drive. Senior receiver Keon Smith pulled in a perfect ball from Grisel on a 42-yard pass up the right sideline to get the ball to the Garner 22 with 25 seconds to play. A 20-yarder to Burston moved the ball to the 2, but the Trojans’ defense stuffed Smith on a run attempt, forcing the 18-yard field by Rubino.
Grisel finished with 390 yards passing and Burston (seven catches, 133 yards) and Schuller (10 catches, 116 yards) both topped the century mark in receiving yards.
Garner (10-3) started two possessions inside the Middle Creek 40 in the third quarter but couldn’t get points out of either one. The Trojans missed a game-tying field goal from 26 yards with 3:46 to play in the third quarter.
“We had some chances but we just couldn’t ever get any momentum going on offense,” Garner coach Thurman Leach said. “Middle Creek’s defense had a lot to do with that, though.”
Said Sims of the Mustangs’ defense: “They played pretty incredible.”
Hines ended the year with 3,147 yards on the ground, which is the eighth-best single-season rushing total in NCHSAA history and a new Wake County record.
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