By RYAN HERMAN
North Lincoln was the better team yet Lincolnton scored the most points.
In the end that’s all that mattered.
Sophomore quarterback Jordon Easter accounted for three scores and the Wolves escaped with a 28-27 victory on Friday in the season opener for both teams.
Had it not been for the Knights’ own undoing — they had more than their share of unlucky bounces and mistakes — this one could have been quite different.
“I thought they outplayed us. I really did,” Lincolnton coach Scott Cloninger said. “I went to the cardiologist the other week and I had the stress test tonight.
“How did we win? I may wake up in the morning and can tell you, but right now I can’t.”
As Cloninger pondered how his team, which led 21-7 in the second half, held on to beat North Lincoln for the eighth time in the last nine years, Knights coach David Maness had to console his players following a botched PAT attempt with 9 seconds left that would have tied it.
The miscue, which looked like a pass fake from the press box, was the icing on a cake that was tough to swallow.
“We were trying to tie it up all the way,” Maness said. “We left 14 points laying out here on our mistakes. … It’s a game we should have won, and we had too many mistakes.”
The first of those 14 points — assuming the PATs would have been good — came on a key goal line stand by Lincolnton (1-0) late in the second quarter.
With the Wolves ahead 14-7, the Knights (0-1) had first-and-goal from the 1 but failed to score when Chase Caldwell’s pass was picked off in the end zone by senior Zoauntarrious Brunt — his first of two picks on the night.
In the final period, junior Richard Jackson returned a kickoff 85 yards to paydirt that could have tied it at 28 with less than 6 1/2 minutes to play, but the score was called back when a teammate was flagged for excessive celebration prior to the score.
Caldwell threw his third interception three plays later. It was picked off by Brunt.
“This is exactly what we told them before the game started: The game will be lost, it won’t be won. The team that makes the fewest mistakes, of the critical mistakes, will win,” Maness said. “We made some that hurt really bad, but we’ve lived to fight another day.”
Even with the return nullified, Jackson had three scores of 1-, 5- and 6-yard runs, and co-led North Lincoln with 72 yards on the ground. Ethan Gram also had 72 yards rushing, and as a team it bruised its way to a game that went down to the final possession.
“I thought North Lincoln played very well, pushed us around,” Cloninger said.
Easter, who had a game-high 98 yards rushing and 38 yards and a TD through the air on 2 of 4 passing, scored from the North Lincoln 1 nearly five minutes in. But Grahm Willis hit the left post on the PAT, which left the door open for the Knights.
North Lincoln took its time on its second possession, and methodically ate up nearly 8 minutes of game time when senior Taylor Woodby’s 5-yard TD run ended a 17-play, 83-yard drive that was kept alive when the Wolves jumped offsides with the Knights in punt formation on fourth-and-5.
Back-to-back punts set up Lincolnton at its own 44, and on the drive Easter attempted three of his four passes, the last going for 34 yards over the middle to Justice Whitesides for the score and an eventual 14-7 lead that went into halftime.
Lincolnton upped its lead to 21-7 on a 44-yard scamper by Easter at the 8:23 mark of the third quarter, one play after Tate Cantrell picked off Caldwell on a ball that was tipped at the line of scrimmage.
Three plays into its next drive North Lincoln got a 1-yard score from Jackson. Two Lincolnton possessions later the Wolves helped out the Knights when the snap on the punt was bad and resulted in a 17-yard loss, which set up North Lincoln at the Lincolnton 18.
Jackson scored from the 6, and the extra point by Bryan Seymour — who was 3-for-3 on PATs — tied it at 21 with 11:03 to play.
“Our effort was tremendous. (Lincolnton) is a program that’s established and they’ve been winning forever,” Maness said. “We know we can play, and we know we can play for 48 minutes. We feel like we left a lot out here, but, you know.”
The Wolves answered on their next drive, which took nearly 5 minutes off the clock, when junior Quinlyn Harris scored on a 10-yard run to go up 28-21.
The rest was simply bad luck for the Knights and enough points for Lincolnton.
“I’m not happy at all. I feel very lucky to get out of this game with a win,” Cloninger said.
While Caldwell may have thrown three interceptions in his varsity debut — including one that was tipped at the line — he played like an upperclassmen on North Lincoln’s final drive.
The junior completed 5 of 12 passes for 49 yards on the drive, and set up Jackson’s score for the potential to tie or win with a 7-yard strike to Jackson on first-and-10 from the 12.
Caldwell finished 7 of 19 for 110 yards and three picks.
“He’s our guy. He’s got to be. And he struggled some and made some mistakes,” Maness said of Caldwell. “I told him, I said ‘Hey, you’ve got to step up, right now, and make some plays.’ And he did.
“He had some mistakes tonight, but, in the end he took us down the field.”
Although not happy, Cloninger acknowledged his defense came up big one last time, even if the conversion attempt was set up by misfortune.
“Did we deserve it? We didn’t quit, and that’s the bottom line,” he said. “We had a test. Our defense made the play they had to make.”