High School Sports

HHCA's try for back-to-back state titles falls short, 31-27

COLUMBIA -- The situation seemed custom-made for Hilton Head Christian Academy's quick-strike offense.

Down by four, 1:59 left, 88 yards to go for a second consecutive SCISAA Class 2-A title. The Eagles had pulled off similar feats countless times before.

But not this time.

After Hilton Head Christian had rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to take a brief lead, Thomas Sumter Academy's Jordan Tindal intercepted a Luke Sirgo pass on fourth down to stop the Eagles' last-chance drive, and the Generals held on for a 31-27 victory to claim the school's first state football title Saturday at Benedict College's Charlie W. Johnson Stadium.

Sirgo's interception was the Eagles' fifth turnover of the night, and each of their last two drives ended with giveaways, an atypical ending to Hilton Head Christian's title defense.

"The same things we did in the first half came back to haunt us, whether it was forcing play-calling on my part or forcing plays by the kids out on the field or just not executing," Eagles coach Tommy Lewis said. "Take your pick of any one of those three things on any given play."

Thomas Sumter (13-1) jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead by taking advantage of three turnovers and the nearly flawless play of quarterback Patrick Stegall, who completed all seven of his passes in the first half and finished 14 for 18 for 202 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.

"It's been like that the last half of the season; we just didn't come out strong," Eagles senior Ryan Emery said. "We just came out soft, and they're too good to just come back in the second half. We had to get up on them, and that didn't happen."

But the Generals couldn't hold onto the momentum.

Hilton Head Christian (10-2) dominated the line of scrimmage to start the second half, using its strong ground game to claw back into it. The Eagles put together three consecutive impressive drives, chipping away at the margin with touchdown runs by Eric Farr and JaBrook Tucker and taking a 27-24 lead on Sirgo's 10-yard touchdown run with 10:49 left.

"Our kids were a little down," Generals coach Troy Kessinger said of his team's mood after letting the lead slip away. "We told them the whole night, this is fun. I said, win or lose, you've spent 16 weeks, this is a good time and this is a great game."

Just when the Eagles were able to begin envisioning themselves celebrating another title, the image slipped out of focus.

Sirgo's third-down pass to Josh Mousseau ended up a yard short of a first down that would have allowed the Eagles to keep eating up the clock, and the Generals deflected the ensuing punt, which rolled dead at the Thomas Sumter 41 after traveling only 13 yards.

Two plays later, Michael Fitzgerald started to the right side, then cut back hard to his left and found an open lane, outrunning the defense and diving inside the pylon for a 46-yard touchdown.

"We ran the same play at the end of the half, and I tried to cut it back and slipped," Fitzgerald said. "When I cut it back, I knew on the run at the end of the half I would have scored a touchdown then. It was just great blocking by the offensive line. When I saw that hole and I cut it back, there was hardly anyone there."

But even when the Eagles lost a fumble on the first play of their ensuing drive, the Generals couldn't put it away. They gave it back with a fumble of their own, and Sirgo and Co. had a chance to orchestrate a game-winning drive.

They managed only one first down, and it came on a roughing-the-passer penalty.

"Just a couple of bad decisions on my part," Sirgo said. "Instead of moving the chains, I just went for the deep ball. All it's about is moving the chains, and I got greedy and went for the deep ball instead."

Sirgo was uncharacteristically shaky, in large part because the Generals kept him under pressure, especially in the first half. He finished 14 for 30 for 175 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Instead of writing the perfect ending to a career that ends with him holding all of the school's season and career passing records, Sirgo was sitting on the Eagles' bench long after the trophy presentation was complete, lamenting what might have been while Lewis consoled some of his teammates nearby.

"I felt like we had it and we could move the ball down the field in two minutes," Lewis said. "We just didn't execute or didn't make the right play calls on my part at that critical moment, and Thomas Sumter did."