The Carthage Bulldogs looked like they were in complete control Friday night in Beaumont. But the Bulldogs couldn’t come up with the one play they needed to finish off the undefeated El Campo Ricebirds. Something the Texas high school playoffs have taught me is, with teams this good, the ability to finish is often the difference between advancing and going home. Those still playing are so disciplined and dangerous, situations that would make an ordinary team fold up and start thinking about the offseason are often overcome; if the team on top can’t put a boot on the neck and finish the job.
After taking a 25-14 early in the 4th, the Carthage Bulldogs had many chances to put that boot on the neck but kept letting the Ricebirds up. The next two El Campo possessions ended in turnovers. The Bulldogs failed to capitalize on either one. Still, when El Campo took possession with 7:10 left, deep in their own territory and down by 11, the game felt under control. El Campo, had thrown just 80 passes the entire season, down by two scores with time running out, it seemed unlikely the Ricebirds could put together two scores quickly enough. Though ineffective throwing the ball, El Campo did a great job moving the ball on the ground, scoring a touchdown with 3:37 left. A successful 2 point conversion made the score 25-22 Carthage.
It was still Carthage’s game to lose, if they could just pick up a few first downs the game would be over. On second and long, the Bulldogs attempted a trick play and fumbled on their own 9 yard line. Four plays later, on 4th and 2 from the 2, the Ricebirds took their first lead of the night, 29-25 with 1:50 remaining.
The Bulldogs quickly took their last possession to the El Campo 30 yard line, but two incomplete passes set up a 4th and 2. A quarterback draw took the ball to the marker; the chains were brought out, short by an inch and suddenly, the game and the Bulldog season is over.
At its best football, for a brief moment, feels like the most important thing in the world to the men who coach it and the kids who play it. For the past five months thousands of hours have been dedicated and the people involved have spent more time with each other than their families. In the playoffs, everything is elevated, the highs of winning and moving on are amazing, but the lows are devastating. Suddenly, everything is taken away and all that work feels like it’s been for nothing. Players realize they had just played their last game, many their last ever. After a playoff loss is the only time you’ll see teenage boys openly cry.
In the end, football is really about the life lessons it teaches the students who play it. How to deal with the crushing end of a season is the final lesson and Coach Surratt and the Carthage staff set a great example of how to lose with dignity. Coach Surratt gathered his team for the final time and told them he would take the blame for the loss because that’s what adults do instead of pointing fingers. He admonished the few who couldn’t control their emotions enough to represent Carthage in defeat. He let his team know he was proud of them and thanked them for their effort. It will be a long offseason for the Bulldog coaches and returning players, this was the type of loss that haunts you.
Carthage will return ten of eleven offensive starters in 2013. This is an excellent program and does things the right way, they will be back. I enjoyed my time in Carthage and with the Bulldog staff and players. I’m disappointment that the loss means I won’t be seeing them again for my project and it’s sad that my last time with them was watching them handle a tough loss. But, unfortunately, that’s how it usually ends in the playoffs.