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Football: Central drops heartbreaker to Duluth in overtime

After the kick, the Forsyth Central football team stayed on the field, scattered around like the game had ended with an explosion, rather than an extra point. Some players crouched down on the turf, some lay prone, and one yanked his helmet off and cursed the luck that had escaped the Bulldogs and found Duluth. 

The Bulldogs and Wildcats had finished regulation tied at 35-35 and headed to overtime. Central had the first possession and scored, but the snap on the extra point was low and the kick was blocked. Duluth answered with a touchdown, and the Wildcats' snap on the point after was even worse, skipping along the turf before reaching Jalil El-Amin, the holder. 

By that time, the Bulldogs' special teams unit was on him and kicker Marvin Jules. But Jules got a foot to the ball, and his kick avoided the raised hands of Central's blockers and sailed through the uprights. The final: Duluth 42, Central 41. 

"I feel for them," Bulldogs head coach Frank Hepler said of his team. "They're working hard, and they're giving everything they've got. We had our chances."

Friday's game might have been Central's best performance of the season, at least on offense. The Bulldogs (0-4) took until their third game to even score a point, but their offense was strong and varied against Duluth. They ran a strong ground attack, led by running back Devran Orsan's 182 rushing yards on 36 carries, and quarterback Brad Thiltgen had a strong night, going 17-for-27 with 184 yards passing, plus a rushing touchdown in regulation and another in overtime. 

"We've gotten better every single week on offense," Thiltgen said.

Big plays and a few turnovers worked against the Bulldogs in regulation. Duluth's first play of the game was a halfback pass that went 74 yards for a score. In the second quarter, the Wildcats had a 73-yard score, on a pass from El-Amin to Travion Hampton. Orsan was stripped once, which Duluth picked up and ran back for a score, and fumbled deep in the Wildcats' red zone, which snuffed out a drive to start the second half that lasted more than six minutes.

Orsan scored on a fourth-and-goal play at the one to put the Bulldogs up 35-27 with 2:32 to play. A strong return on the ensuing kickoff and facemask penalty on the Bulldogs on the play put Duluth at the Central 30, though, and the Wildcats scored and converted a two-point conversion.

That set up overtime and its brutal conclusion. Hepler saw no clear error in execution on the final extra point.

"If our hands were an inch lower, we block it and the game's still going," Hepler said. "...Because we were there. We were there to block it. They made the play, and we didn't."

Hepler quickly got the Bulldogs off the field and into the locker room, where he reinforced the positive and long-term outlook that he's focused on with Central. 

"There was no yelling and screaming," Hepler said. "There was nothing but praise."

Hepler already built one Forsyth County program, at West, and now he's tasked with a rebuild that he knows won't be completed quickly. On Friday, Hepler still saw signs of the anticipated product.

"This program's not going to be rebuilt on the 7A level in one season or even two seasons," Hepler said. "It's going to take a few years, and these are the building blocks. In three or four years, when you guys come and talk to us when we've won a region championship, you'll be like, 'Yeah coach, I remember that night you had Duluth beat and you let them off the hook.' That was a building block. That's what we're looking at."