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UPDATED: Skirkanich’s game-winning kick sends Tuscarora to state final

Tuscarora players rejoice after junior Leron West plunged across the goal line for his first of two rushing touchdowns versus Stafford. The host Huskies prevailed 20-17 to earn a spot in the Class 5 state championship game.—Photo Courtesy/Bill Vocke
The crowd knew it was good before the referees raised their arms. By the time the football fell to the ground after having split the uprights, sophomore kicker Max Skirkanich - whose right foot had just booted the ball through those goalposts in the waning seconds of regulation - had been swarmed under a mass of ecstatic Tuscarora teammates as the crowd went wild.

Moments before, overtime seemed inevitable. But junior defensive back Owen Cary grabbed all the momentum when he picked off a deep pass and brought it back 34 yards to the 15 with 12 seconds to go.

Two plays later, Skirkanich’s 32-yard game-winning field goal gave the homestanding Huskies (12-2) a dramatic 20-17 victory Dec. 2 in the Class 5 state semifinals versus the Region 5D champion Stafford Indians (10-4).

“Jeez,” Tuscarora head coach Michael Burnett began with a slow shake of his head. “This group is gonna kill me.”

Even match

The veteran coach had just seen a seesaw nip-and-tuck affair in which neither team led by more than a touchdown.

Tuscarora tallied first when junior back Leron West lowered his shoulder and drove six inches across the goal line, converting a fourth down into a touchdown.

Stafford returned the favor, equalizing when quarterback Jalen Smith delivered a 38-yard touchdown pass to Justin Toler on a fourth down.

Skirkanich then hit a 28-yard field goal to give the Huskies a 10-7 halftime lead. But the Indians grabbed the advantage midway through the third when Smith found Toler for a 50-yard strike.

An exchange of fumbles put Tuscarora at midfield, setting up Husky junior quarterback Justin Allen’s 40-yard catch-and-run connection with freshman receiver Caleb Coombs. West and the offensive line drove in from a yard out.

A Stafford field goal knotted matters at 17-17 with 10 minutes to go.

The two offenses then traded interceptions, putting Stafford deep in its own territory with 35 seconds remaining. That’s when Smith launched an ill-advised pass that Cary snagged as if it were meant for him.

“I couldn’t believe it. The ball came to me and I’m grateful that it did,” Cary said. “We just had to pass it over to the offensive side.”

After one failed shot at the end zone, the right-footed Skirkanich lined up on the left hashmark and sent it sailing through.

“We work on last-second field goals every week. We’ve just never done it,” said Burnett, who noted that his team has attempted three field goals this season, two of those from the state semifinal.

“But the key is to keep the kids mentally ready, and Max is that kind of kid. He’s a tremendous leader and it doesn’t surprise me that he made the kick.”

The kicker himself seemed the least impressed by his own performance.

“It was just a normal kick, at the end of the day,” Skirkanich said.

His teammates weren’t so reserved.

“This gives us the biggest boost ever,” West said. “That’s heart, right there. I love it.”

Tuscarora has won its last three games - all win-or-go-home playoff showdowns - by a combined six points.

“We’re a gritty team, maybe not the most talented, but we fight, we hang in and we try to find a way to win. We seem to have that knack,” the coach said. “Once in a while you get a team like this and you just enjoy the ride.”

Big finish

The eight-year-old Tuscarora program has made one previous state championship, falling 22-19 to L.C. Bird in 2014.

If the Huskies are to claim the school’s first statewide crown for football, they’ll have to get past two-time defending champion Highland Springs (13-1). The Springers defeated Stone Bridge 35-29 to take last year’s title.

“The mentality we have to have for Highland Springs is that we have to go in there angry,” West said. “We need to want it bad.”

Cary employed the same adjective in describing how much the Huskies want their first state title.

“All of us want it bad this year. We feel like we can win it,” he said.

Looking ahead to the state title tilt, Burnett thought back to the night of July 30 when the Huskies camped out on the football field before the season’s first practice.

“It’s really not about a state championship, although to the world it is,” Burnett said. “To us it’s about the opportunity to play together again.”

Class 5 state championship

-Tuscarora (12-2) vs. Highland Springs (13-1)

-Saturday, Dec. 9, 12 p.m.

-Hampton University

-Recent Class 5 state finals

2016: Highland Springs 35, Stone Bridge 29

2015: Highland Springs 27, Stone Bridge 7

2014: L.C. Bird 22, Tuscarora 19

Tuscarora 20, Stafford 17

-First Quarter
T: West 1 run (Skirkanich kick) 2:43

-Second Quarter
S: Smith 38 pass to Toler (Plonka kick) 7:57
T: Skirkanich 28 field goal 3:21

-Third Quarter
S: Allen 50 pass to Toler (Plonka kick) 7:15
T: West 1 run (Skirkanich kick) 2:17

-Fourth Quarter
S: Plonka 22 field goal 10:05
T: Skirkanich 32 field goal 0:02

Offensive stat leaders

-Rushing - T: West (22-69-2), Allen (10-39), Lundy (3-6); S: Smith (8-34), Armstead (11-35), Cardell-Ford (2-5)

-Passing - T: Allen (10 of 19 for 128, 3 Int.), Gick (1 of 1 for 40); S: Smith (10 of 20 for 186, 2 TD, 2 Int.)

-Receiving - T: Jenkins (5-65), Coombs (4-74), Thorne (2-27), West (2-5); S: Toler (4-106-2), Woodson (1-43), Richardson (1-14)

Photos by Bill Vocke


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