SALUDA - A season of firsts came to an untimely end for the Lee Central High School football team on Friday.
The Stallions, at 11-1 with their first region championship and two playoff victories under their belts, gave once-beaten Saluda all it could handle in the quarterfinal round of the 2A state playoffs but came up just short, falling 30-26 on a chilly night at Bettis Herlong Stadium.
The victory, the Tigers' 18th straight at home, propelled Saluda into a semifinal game against defending state champion Abbeville, 14-7 winners over Cheraw, in next week's upper state championship game.
The Stallions end their season on a disappointing note, but still having done what head coach Justin Danner expected of his team.
"It's disappointing in the end, but when you pray to God that he sees fit to let the better team win, you have to respect it if it's not your team," Danner said.
"We wish it would have gone the other way, but what we asked the seniors to do this season was help build our program, and they definitely did that," he said. "We can't ask for anything else."
Lee Central took a 6-3 first quarter lead on a 1-yard scoring run by quarterback Tijuan Durant and extended it to 13-3 early in the second quarter when Demetrius Dubose picked off Saluda quarterback Noah Bell and senior running back Mike Watters capped the ensuing drive with a 1-yard scoring dive.
But Saluda reeled off 20 unanswered points before the half and had just enough to outlast the Stallions the rest of the way.
"The second quarter hurt us, but at the end of the day, we pride ourselves on playing defense and running the football," Danner said. "I was happy to see the offense stay alive; but this time of year, playing playoff fotball, you've got to play as mistake-free, and we just didn't get it done."
After watching its 10-point lead turn into a 10-point deficit in the second quarter, Lee Central punched back into the game with a 7-play, 55-yard drive, capped by an 8-yard touchdown run by senior running back Shamari Simon, and Corey King's point-after kick cut the Tigers' lead to 23-20.
Saluda answered, however, with a scoring drive of its own, capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass from Bell to O'syruis Springs, and the point-after kick gave the Tigers all the points they'd need.
The Stallions were able to move the ball well on the ground against Saluda, but penalties put a stop to their next drive, as was the case with several other promising starts.
"We thought we could come in here and compete with them," Danner said. "But we knew it would come down to mistakes, and tonight I think we had one or two mistakes that ended up hurting our team more than we wanted. A lot of penalties."
Lee Central cut the deficit to 30-26 with a 1-yard scoring dive by Zurich Scarborough early in the fourth quarter, and the Stallions' defense gave them another chance, forcing a three-and-out by Saluda on its next series.
Bottled up at their 11=yard line, the Stallions weren't able to generate any space, but had a stroke of luck on the punt as Saluda's Jay Baker muffed it, and Lee Central recovered at its 41.
Another penalty thwarted that drive, however, and Saluda took over on downs. The Stallions forced a punt, but had only time for a desperation heave from near midfield. It fell incomplete, and the season was over.
Danner was effusive in his praise for his fellow coaches.
"They have done an excellent job getting the kids prepared week in and week out - especially our defensive staff. They've yielded maybe 11 points or so per game, and you can't ask for a better job than that to give us a chance to win on Friday nights.
"The coaches did a great job this year, the seniors have done what we asked them to do and the Lee County community has really supported us and backed us.
"It was a great year for us," Danner said. "We didn't want it to end here, and unfortunately it did, but we're looking forward to the future. It's very bright."