On the postgame satisfaction scale, “almost” isn’t anywhere close to “winning”, no matter where the game or who the opponent.
But the North Forsyth Raiders had reason to hold their heads high Friday night, after forcing Peachtree Ridge to work for all four quarters to earn a 34-23 Lions’ win in Region 7-AAAAA play.
It might not seem like much, but it was a step in the right direction against a program that had beaten the Raiders by a combined score of 118-20 in their past two meetings and had the words “2006 State Champions” emblazoned on the brick of the fieldhouse.
Thus, second-year head coach Jared Zito, noting that North has already eclipsed its win total of each of the past two seasons, had reason to be positive after the Raiders succumbed to the Lions.
“There’s no question that we’ve at least turned the corner,” Zito said. “That’s the first time since I’ve been here that they’ve fought like they belonged in Region 7-AAAAA.”
The Raiders looked like they might do even more than just hang around, as they led 17-7 midway through the second quarter and looked ready to take a lead into the locker room when they took over the ball with 2:05 to go in the half on their own 6-yard line.
Peachtree Ridge had other ideas. The Lions forced a three-and-out on three straight running plays, and got the ball back after a punt on the Raider 46.
Then, receiver Mitchell Williford and quarterback Nick Lombardo, who tormented the North defense with timely big plays all night, spearheaded a quick drive.
Lombardo completed twice to move the ball to the 20, then with less than a minute on the clock, rolled right and heaved the ball to Williford in the back corner of the end zone.
The senior receiver was surrounded by three North defenders, but rose up and plucked the ball away for the score and a 21-17 lead.
“We were in position, but we didn’t make the play,” Zito said. “All night, we were right there, we did all we could do in coverage. Sometimes you make the play and sometimes you don’t.”
Williford made most of the plays in the secondary, finishing with 10 catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns. His first came in the first quarter on a five-yard fade pattern. He also set up a fourth Lion touchdown with a 29-yard grab on the opening drive of the second half.
North was forced to punt again on their ensuing possession – the Raiders gained only two first downs and 31 yards of total offense in the second half – and the Lions marched back down for what they hoped would be a clinching touchdown.
But North was able to ignite their own hopes again when Lombardo fumbled a handoff on the 10-yard-line and Steven Hester recovered for the Raiders with room to run. Hester brought the ball back nearly the entire length of the field, only getting tripped up by the pursuit at the Lion 3.
Two plays later, Jory Walsh punched in the score from a yard out to make it 28-23.
The Raiders were in position to get the ball back and go for a major upset, but Lombardo atoned for his fumble, salvaging a broken play on a third-and-long and scrambling 40 yards for a touchdown. North’s drive on the ensuing possession bogged down, and Peachtree Ridge was able to run out the clock for most of the final minutes.
Walsh keyed an excellent start for the Raider offense, catching four passes for 74 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. His second touchdown came on a perfectly thrown ball from Eli Chester on a third-and-nine from the Lion 30, and it put the Raiders in front 17-7.
Zito said the early success on offense had a palpable impact on the team’s confidence, but they couldn’t sustain the momentum.
“I thought it [Walsh’s second touchdown] was the turning point where we thought we could win,” he said. “I think there was a little bit of disbelief that we were beating Peachtree Ridge, and they were able to come back. But you can’t play well for only two quarters and expect to beat a good football team.”
North (2-2, 1-1 7-AAAAA) plays host to Collins Hill on Friday.