It didn't take long to come to the realization Friday night that Beaufort High School's Region 8-AAAA showdown with Fort Dorchester was bound to turn into one of those whoever-has-the-ball-last affairs.
And the Patriots had the ball last.
Fort Dorchester put together an 80-yard scoring drive capped by Ethan Long's 2-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Smith with 8.7 seconds left -- Long's fifth touchdown pass of the night -- then recovered an onside kick to finish off a wild 49-45 victory in both teams' region opener.
The decisive drive came after the Eagles took a 45-42 lead on Parrish Holmes' second touchdown run, a 1-yard plunge with 1:34 left.
"Games like that ..." Beaufort High coach Mark Clifford said. "The kids played their hearts out."
Clifford told his players not to expect anything less. The Eagles and Patriots have shown a penchant for playing wild games over the past several years, including Fort Dorchester's 34-29 win that went down to the final play of the game last season.
This one was every bit as gut-wrenching.
The teams traded scores until late in the third quarter, when Akeem Smalls and Maliek Maldonado returned Long interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive offensive plays. Smalls took one 95 yards, and Maldonado sprinted in from 30 yards to give Beaufort High a 38-28 lead -- the largest of the night for either team.
"I thought the momentum was definitely our way (at that point)," Maldonado said. "I thought we were going to pull it out. They just made a lot more plays that we did."
And Long and his bevy of receivers made most of them.
Long threw for 433 yards on 31-of-42 passing, and he had three receivers go over 100 yards. Chris Rouse had eight catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns, Devron Glenn caught seven passes for 105 yards and a score, and Smith had seven grabs for 103 yards, but none bigger than the decisive touchdown catch on a quick slant.
The Eagles' offense was nearly as impressive, though they did most of their damage on the ground. Even when leading rusher D'Vonta Cohen went out with a sprained left ankle, Beaufort High kept moving the ball on the ground, piling up 284 yards. Cohen had 94 on seven carries in the first half, and Holmes finished with 68 yards on 16 carries.
But with 8.7 seconds left, it was of little consolation.
"We've got a good football team. A lot of kids are making plays," Clifford said. "We've just got to learn how to win the close games like that."