Mark Rose gathered the North Jackson football players around him near the south end zone of R.D. Hicks Stadium and thanked them for a turnaround season.
In some time, they’ll realize what a special season it was, Rose said.
But Friday night, the tears told the story, the sting of that special season ending for the No. 5-ranked Chiefs with a 33-13 loss to No. 3 Hokes Bluff in a Class 4A second-round playoff matchup in Stevenson.
A season after going 2-8, North Jackson rebounded by winning the Class 4A Region 7 championship on the way to an 11-1 finish.
“These guys have accomplished a lot and I’m glad to be associated with them,” Rose said. “I wouldn’t trade them for anybody. They’ve done a lot of great things this year.”
North Jackson played the final two-and-a-half quarters without star running back Lee Witherspoon, who left the game with 5:49 remaining in the second quarter after being taken down by a host of Eagles during a 2-yard run. The state’s single-season touchdown record holder (59) finished with 77 yards on 17 carries.
Rose refused to use losing Witherspoon to injury as an excuse.
“Give credit to [Hokes Bluff],” he said. “They just beat us.”
Hokes Bluff (11-1) used three fourth-quarter turnovers by the Chiefs to break the game open and advance to the Class 4A quarterfinals. The Eagles host Deshler next week.
North Jackson opened the game with a 19-play, 8:44-minute drive that ended on downs at the Hokes Bluff 7-yard line. The Eagles, leaning on standout running back Darrian Meads, who carried eight times on the 93-yard drive for 88 yards, took a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter when Meads scored from 8 yard out.
North Jackson then drove to Hokes Bluff 13-yard line before Witherspoon was injured and the Chiefs turned it over on downs on the next play. North Jackson responded on its next possession, getting pass completions from Tanner Woodall to Korre Smith for 27 yards and to Andrew Darnell for 22 yards to set up Woodall’s 1-yard touchdown run that cut Hokes Bluff’s lead to 7-6 at halftime.
Hokes Bluff’s defense set up first the Eagles’ first score of the second half, stopping North Jackson on a fourth-and-four inside its own 40. Meads scored four plays later on a 23-yard touchdown run for a 14-6 lead.
Meads’ next score came on defense, returning an interception 45 yards to push Hokes Bluff in front 20-6 with 9 minutes remaining. But North Jackson pulled back within one score less than 30 seconds later on Smith’s 96-yard touchdown run and Luke Szameitat’s PAT.
North Jackson’s defense forced a three-and-out on the Eagles' next possession, but the Chiefs muffed the punt and Hokes Bluff recovered at the North Jackson 26. Four plays later, facing fourth-and-five from the Chiefs’ 21-yard line, Hokes Bluff quarterback Andrew Gulledge found Braydon Hill in the back corner of the end zone for a 27-13 lead with 4:05 remaining. The Chiefs fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Meads scored from 10 yards out on the next play to put the Eagles in front 33-13.
Meads closed with 164 yards on 26 carries as Hokes Bluff advanced to the quarterfinals for the third straight season.
Woodall finished 7-of-16 passing for 92 yards for North Jackson while Smith had 127 total yards and Deshawn Ware had eight carries for 36 rushing yards.
“Our guys laid it on the line and that’s all you can ask,” Rose said. “It was a one-score game there until the turnovers. I’m proud of the way they played. Proud of what they did this season.”