MILTON — It had been so long since North Forsyth’s football team had been this close.
On the road against Milton on Friday night, the Raiders had a chance to earn something that none of the players on their sideline were alive for: a region championship, which North last won back in 2001. Sure, they also needed some help from South Forsyth to make that happen, but it was possible nonetheless.
And early on, it certainly looked like the Raiders were up to the challenge against the defending Class 7A state champions, particularly on the defensive side. Milton was making mistakes, and with the game tied late in the second quarter, North’s Miles Hartsfield had intercepted Eagles quarterback Devin Farrell with just under three minutes left in the first half.
But after a stellar defensive showing to start the game, those minutes almost single-handedly erased North’s chances. Right after Hartsfield’s pick, the Raiders fumbled the ball away, and shortly after that, Milton’s Ahmad Junearick completed a 64-yard catch and run to give the Eagles their first lead of the game.
And on the ensuing kickoff, Milton dealt North a gut punch, with Christian Armistead stripping the ball away and running into the end zone for the Eagles’ second touchdown in 12 seconds.
“I thought we started great,” North Forsyth head coach Robert Craft said. “I thought our defense played really good that first half. We had one bad play defensively they broke the long one, one turnover down there offensively and one bad play on special teams. I thought we played a great half if you take those three plays away.”
While North was able to narrow their deficit early in the second half, the offense couldn’t quite keep up with Milton, which ultimately completed its perfect run through Region 5-7A play, handing the Raiders a 33-9 defeat.
“Our guys fought really hard,” Craft said. “I think they proved they belong on this stage, competing for a championship. I'm just really proud of how our guys fought. Against a good team in a game like this, you can't make those mistakes.”
North actually tried some trickery to start the game to no avail, with running back Jared Lucero attempting a pass to a covered Nicky Dalmolin that was intercepted with 8:39 left in the first quarter. The Raider defense was stout, though, and when they got the ball back, Lucero was pounding through the line for some nice gains.
After one of those runs, though, Lucero hobbled toward the sideline before falling to the ground. He was pulled from the game with an injury to his right leg and did not return, with Austin Colon taking his place. Craft is optimistic about Lucero’s status for the first round of the playoffs next week.
“We were moving the ball really well,” Craft said. “We were getting a good push up front running the ball and kept the defense off the field a couple of times. (Lucero’s) going to be ready to go, though, and I'm proud of Austin Colon stepping up.”
North wasn’t able to fully capitalize on an offsides penalty in the red zone on that same drive, but took its only lead of the game with a chip shot Will Peltz field goal that made it 3-0 with 2:22 left in the first quarter.
Milton knotted the game up at 3-3 with 9:18 left in the first half after a false start penalty eliminated a potential fourth down try, and with 2:02 to go, Junearick scored his touchdown before Armistead his special teams score with 1:50 left. North trailed 18-3 at halftime.
The Raiders forced a three-and-out on Milton’s first drive of the second half and narrowed the score to 18-9 with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brady Meitz to Anthony Herock that ended a nine-play, 4:19 drive. North couldn’t sustain a series like that again, though, with Milton scoring 15 unanswered from that point.
Despite the loss, South defeated West Forsyth on Friday night, which gives the Raiders a home playoff matchup against Brookwood next week. The Raiders may not have earned that elusive region title, but Craft still feels like his team held its own.
“The biggest thing for us is it's been 18 years since we've competed for a championship,” Craft said. “It won't be another 18 years. North Forsyth High School's going to be back in region championship games. I was excited for our kids to be on this stage. They showed they belonged here. We're ready to go play this next season. Now it's a new season, so we're excited for it. We're proud to have another week.”