SHELBY — Leading by 10 points twice in the final period, the Freedom football team had a chance for a statement road win over perennial power Crest on Friday.
Instead, three late Patriots’ scoring chances inside the Chargers’ 30-yard line all went awry, and a final-minute Crest touchdown spelled doom in a three-point defeat in what might be remembered as the one that slipped away, 51-48.
Freedom (3-2) has now dropped five straight versus Crest dating back to 2006.
Up 48-38 after Chase Young’s second 1-yard touchdown run of the night with 2:09 left in the third, the Patriots defense held the hosts to a three-and-out and Young blocked the ensuing punt to set Freedom up at the Crest 31. The drive stalled, however, at the 15 early in the fourth quarter.
One play later, Crest was within 48-45 on an 85-yard TD pass over the middle, one of six Chargers’ offensive plays covering 30 yards or more.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Pats went 34 yards on five plays but fumbled just as they entered the red zone, their only turnover of the night versus two takeaways.
Damien Dula hauled in an interception at midfield on the next possession to preserve the FHS lead. Then with under 2:00 left, Freedom’s Mekhi Spates ran 14 yards on third down to set up fourth and 1 with the Chargers out of timeouts. Crest swallowed up the next play in the backfield to regain the ball.
Crest’s go-ahead, three-play drive was highlighted by Jalin Graham’s 51-yard screen pass from DJ Fuller and capped with 57 seconds to go by TJ Ruff’s third TD of the night on a 5-yard rush. Ruff also scored in the second half via a 41-yard pass from Fuller (15 for 22, 377 yards, team-high 66 rushing yards; five total TDs) and a 60-yard kickoff return.
Freedom’s final chance reached only to its own 37 before a turnover on downs.
“I thought we had our chances in the fourth quarter to put it away,” Freedom coach Luke Little said. “Up 10 three different times, we couldn’t. The first one after the blocked punt, we got nothing there. Then we go down and fumble and then there toward the end, we pick up that first down and it’s over. Just needed to get one yard with them out of timeouts and we win it.
“To go toe-to-toe with a program like that, though, I do think it shows we’re close.”
Freedom quarterback Jayden Birchfield had a spectacular night in defeat, completing 18 of 33 passes for 302 yards and two TDs and running 21 times for a game-high and career-high 132 yards and two more scores.
His favorite target was fellow senior Demorian Burgess, who finished with career-bests of eight catches, 185 yards and two TDs as the No. 1 receiver with last year’s county co-player of the year Desmond Caldwell out with an injury.
Burgess’ biggest highlight came on an early second-half juggling reception with a defender draped on him. He then spun away from a tackle by another Crest player and outran both to the end zone to cover 59 yards.
“Jayden was pretty special tonight. (Caldwell) being out hurt us a little, but (Burgess) stepped up,” Little added. “He’s so important to us on defense, we generally try to rest him more on offense but he showed what he can do tonight. Chase was a little limited with a cold too.”
Dula had 78 yards on six catches. Spates ran for 52 yards, a TD and a two-point conversion, and Young added 39 yards on the ground as FHS won the rushing battle, 225-150. Freedom also ran 27 more plays than Crest, gained 29 first downs to Crest’s 16 and was penalized for 94 fewer yards (124-30).
Freedom’s defense was led by Noah English (2½ tackles for loss). Cam Silvers and Nick Rhoney added a tackle for loss apiece, Dula also had a pass breakup (and added a 38-yard punt return) and Burgess recovered a fumble. Bryce Griffith added a key third-down QB hurry.
The Pats open Northwestern 3A/4A Conference play this week at home against St. Stephens.
Paul Schenkel can be reached at email@example.com or 828-432-8950.