More than 300 miles separate Beechwood and Mayfield on the map. On Friday, a single point separated them on the football field.
Beechwood edged its rival, 14-13, dealing the Cardinals another loss in the championship round, but their first since their community was struck by a historic and deadly tornado last December. The twice-defending champion Tigers were heavy favorites, but the underdog Cardinals were supposed to make movie magic. In a just world, Steven Spielberg would have been on the phone with Mayfield Coach Joe Morris for the entirety of his team’s four-hour bus trip home.
The football gods don’t subscribe to Netflix. They made Mayfield kicker Lincoln Suter doink a PAT that would have tied the game with 1:13 to play. They subjected Morris to a lifetime of second-guessing the call not to go for two in that situation. They tried to break the hearts of thousands who deserve no more heartbreak.
“We are disappointed because we expect to win every game,” Morris said. “We expect to win state championships and we fell just a little bit short. So, we’re disappointed, but we’ll be back.”
The small-school juggernauts combined to win 28 state titles prior to Friday’s contest but had met only twice in the finals, with Mayfield coming out ahead on each occasion (1995 and 2008). A third time wasn’t in the cards, but the blame shouldn’t fall on a single Cardinal. Suter’s teammates won’t allow that to happen.
“He feels terrible right now, but on the way out, these two guys right here (running back Juju Starks and receiver Isaac Stevenson), they said, ‘Hey, we gotta make sure we keep Lincoln up,’” Morris said. “There’s so many plays in a football game. That one play did not cost us the game. He’s been spectacular all year.”
Before the game, Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan, Morris and other school administrators presented a plaque to their Beechwood equivalents as a show of gratitude for tornado-relief aid the Tigers provided. Part of its inscription: “Honorable Rivals, Forever Friends.”
The mantra was echoed by Beechwood Coach Noel Rash as he closed his postgame press conference.
“That town isn’t fixed, and I hope we all put ’em in our hearts,” Rash said. “All the stuff they’ve been through, and now you’ve got 14- to 18-year-olds struggling in their hearts tonight over this loss. I don’t know why it happened, but it happened.”
Finding a sympathetic person for Mayfield was easy after the game. Anybody wearing something other than a Beechwood shirt was rooting for the Cardinals, whether they were in the building or not. By the end, given how it played out, some of the Tigers’ faithful probably would’ve OK’d a loss, too.
Finding someone in a Mayfield uniform who felt sorry for themselves, though? They’ve seen what real adversity looks like. This was nothing.
“We planned to win it all,” Starks said. “It happens. We gotta get past it.”
“I thank God for letting me finish at Kroger Field,” Stevenson said. “I know this team will be back.”
“We’ve not had a lot of happy times lately,” Morris said. “This team made our community smile each and every Friday night.”
One point will never change that.