BALDWIN - Middleburg High football has had its bright moments, but also some disastrous moments, and, head coach Karl Smeltzer put it all in perspective at the halftime with the Broncos down 24-3 to 3A-playoff bound Baldwin High School in their Thursday night matchup.
"I challenged them that they could finish the game playing like they were in the first half and remember how bad that was for the rest of their life," said Smeltzer. "I told them seniors that everytime someone asks you about your last year of football, you could tell them you quit in the last game."
The emotion-filled plea worked.
In a game that started to look like a playoff team blowing out a distracted two-win team looking to just end the season and get ready for basketball or soccer, seniors Cole LeClair and Joe Justino took the reigns of putting a stamp on their senior season finale to lead the Broncos to a dramatic 32-31 win. LeClair with key defensive stops and Justino, with two dramatic offensive series that saw him follow LeClair on six consecutive carries on one drive and three on the game-winner, pushed the Broncos to their 32-31 upset.
"I know how good these guys play and how hard we want to win every game," said LeClair, a massive defensive and offensive lineman for Smeltzer. "This team is my family, these guys are my home. We were telling each other we were not going to lose."
LeClair even added a third quarter Larry Czonka-like two point conversion to the mix.
"We had worked on giving him the ball in practice because he is such a great kid," said a chuckling Frank Hall, the Broncos defensive coach. "He will do whatever it takes on both sides of the ball for this team."
After Baldwin seemed intent on extinguishing any form of upset, building their 24-3 lead with Justino nailing a first-series field goal to forbid a shutout, with an interception, a 50 yard kickoff return, a 70 yard scoring run and two short scoring passes.
On the second half kickoff, Middleburg used a 15 yard penalty flag to start at the Baldwin 30 and a 15 yard run from Stone Newsome to set up a 15 yard scoring scamper from Calvin Suggs to close the score to 24-9.
With Smeltzer and his coaching staff calling for their "Heavy" package, LeClair took a Justino handoff off left tackle and powered his way into the end zone for the two-pointer and a 24-11 score.
Justino recovered his own precisely kicked onsides kick on the ensuing kickoff, but the series ended in a punt to the Baldwin two yard line.
From there, the Broncos defense; Alex Nayfack and Nate Rance, got a sack that put Baldwin at their own four on first down after a Justino punt to the two yard line.
A pass breakup from cornerback Calvin Suggs forced a punt from the 11 that, with a facemask 15 yard flag, put the Broncos on the Baldwin 30.
"I have told Laron Bryant (wide receiver) all season that his talent and skill makes him a gamechanger from anywhere on the field," said Smeltzer, of his senior wideout. "He did it on that play."
"That" play was a "Odell" like end zone catch of a Justino floater that Bryant caught behind the helmet of a Baldwin defender that ignited the Bronco bench and put the game at 24-18 with Justino's PAT kick.
Next up, sophomore defensive back Michael Jen-Francois snared an interception on Baldwin's next drive that amped the Bronco sideline, but only produced a punt.
On the punt, Middleburg coverman Wyatt Underwood came up with the ball on a punt muff scrum, but officials gave the ball back to Baldwin. The mishap gave Baldwin a scoring opportunity that opened the game to 30-18.
In a series of power versus fatigue, Justino carried six times off jet sweep options behind LeClair to set up a three yard scoring rush from Jean-Francois and a 31-25 gap for the Broncos with 7:18 left in the game.
On the next Baldwin series, LeClair chased down Baldwin quarterback Bryce Tompkins for a sack after Bronco safety Treavor Shearin nearly picked off a pass to set up more theatrics from Justino.
From the Baldwin 34, after a 25 yard punt return from Trevor Todd, Justino took four snaps to the two yard line and got two shots into the end zone to put the game at 31-31 with a PAT kick able to change the scoreboard. A penalty flag pushed Justino back five yards, but the kick sailed over and put Middleburg up 32-31 with five minutes to go.
Baldwin returnman Christian Sanderson nearly ruined the party with a 40 yard return on the ensuing kickoff and Baldwin able to muscle to the Bronco 16.
Baldwin contemplated a field goal for the win, but on fourth down, Sanderson was stuffed at the line of scrimmage with the Broncos taking over at the 15. Newsome would carry four times to end the game.