VARSITY FOOTBALL: Mountaineers lose 35-28 after controversial finish

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Mitchell High School senior receiver Garrison Phillips dives for a pass Friday, Dec. 6 during a game against East Surry. Mitchell lost the game 35-28. (Photo by Cory Spiers/News-Journal)

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PILOT MOUNTAIN – The Mitchell High School varsity football team’s 1AA state playoff run ended in sudden, heartbreaking fashion Friday, Dec. 6, in a 35-28 loss at East Surry in the regional championship round. 

The No. 2-seeded Mountaineers (12-2) traded body blows with top-seeded East Surry (14-0) all night and roared back from a two-score deficit in the fourth quarter. 

Down 35-28, the Mountaineers methodically drove down the field and deep into East Surry territory. With less than 30 seconds on the clock, senior quarterback Noah Pitman was flushed out of the pocket and found senior receiver Garrison Phillips open in the back corner of the end zone. 

Phillips, who created a small window of separation from the East Surry defensive back, reeled in the pass, tapped his toe and heel inbounds and then landed in a heap on the turf, just a few feet from an official. 

After a brief pause, the pass that appeared to be complete and caught inbounds for a touchdown was ruled incomplete, sending the East Surry faithful into a jubilant frenzy and the Mitchell sideline into chaos. 

Several of Mitchell’s assistant coaches exclaimed and demanded an explanation from the officials and head coach Travise Pitman approached the officials himself to clarify the call as East Surry lined up and prepared to take a knee and put the victory and a berth in the 1AA State Championship in the books. 

A bewildered but collected Travise Pitman walked back to the sidelines and counseled his staff while Mitchell players watched East Surry bleed the remainder of the clock out with one kneel down.

The buzzer sounded and Mitchell players hung their heads, some audibly sobbing while others hugged each other or simply took a moment alone to gather their thoughts. 

“Our kids should have had a chance to either tie or win the game,” Travise Pitman said. “It’s unfortunate that it was taken away by a missed call.”

Travise Pitman declaring the call as “missed” is no longer just speculation. The day after the game, Travise Pitman received an email from Mike Webster, Regional Supervisor of Coastal Plains Football Officials. 

In his email, Webster admitted the call was missed and should have been called a touchdown. 

“The official who made the call was in a great position and was the only one who could have seen the call or weighed in with a decision,” Webster wrote. “I have discussed this play with him and he is deeply disappointed. Simply stated, it was a tough call that was missed.”

Webster’s admission won’t change the outcome or the emotions for the Mountaineers, who come up just short of playing for a state title for the first time since doing so in 2015. 

The Mountaineers have now won double-digit games in five straight seasons. With the 12-2 finish, Travise Pitman’s overall record in six seasons with the team improves to 69-16.

Mitchell got its momentum rolling early against East Surry when junior running back Tanner Duncan capped off an opening drive that bled more than five minutes off of the first quarter clock with an 8-yard rushing touchdown. 

East Surry answered just minutes later with a touchdown run from Elijah Wright that tied the game at 7-7. 

The two teams traded touchdown passes in the second quarter with Noah Pitman finding senior receiver Tyler McKinney for a 26-yard score and East Surry’s Jefferson Boaz connecting with Landon Stevens for a 69-yard strike. 

The two teams were tied at 14 at halftime. 

Less than a minute into the third quarter, Boaz aired it out again and hit senior Steven Gosnell in stride for an 87-yard touchdown. 

Mitchell answered the score midway through the third quarter and tied the game at 21 with a Noah Pitman touchdown pass to senior tight end Cole Sparks but Wright scored again later in the quarter to keep the Cardinals ahead, 28-21. 

East Surry’s Benji Gosnell scored a rushing touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, putting the Cardinals up 35-21 with less than eight minutes left in the game. 

The Mountaineers didn’t go away. Noah Pitman tossed a pass up to junior Caius Peterson, who got a hand on the ball in tight coverage, tipped it to himself and galloped into the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown. 

After a stop on the ensuing East Surry drive, the Mountaineers were set up for the decisive drive that ended with the controversial call on the Phillips catch. 

“This game exemplified what Mitchell football is made of,” Travise Pitman said. “It’s made of heart and desire. We didn’t give up. We knew we had a chance and we knew we’d do what we had to do to win.”

The Mitchell defense held a Cardinals offense that averaged more than 50 points a game entering the matchup to 35 points. Travise Pitman said the defensive showing was strong outside of a few explosive plays. 

“We were challenged against some high-quality players and we got beat on a couple of plays but as a unit, we still put up more yards than they did,” Travise Pitman said. 

Mitchell outgained East Surry 421-394 and ran 72 plays compared to East Surry’s 32. The Mountaineers dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 34:30 compared to 13:30 for East Surry.

“Our effort was great,” Travise Pitman said. “We just had a couple of mental breakdowns.”

Noah Pitman finished 10-22 passing for 162 yards and three touchdowns compared to one interception. He ran 16 times for 78 yards. 

Duncan was the team’s leading rusher with 21 carries for 113 yards and a score. 

Peterson finished with three catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. McKinney registered three receptions for 33 yards and a touchdown. 

“Our kids were physical throughout the game,” Travise Pitman said. “We did everything but win on the scoreboard.”

After the dust settled, Mitchell was presented with the 1AA west regional runner-up trophy as East Surry and some of their faithful who remained in the stands applauded the Mountaineers for their strong effort. 

It wasn’t the storybook ending Travise Pitman imagined for his seniors such as Noah Pitman and McKinney, who played four years of varsity football. 

After the trophy presentations, Noah Pitman and McKinney embraced and loudly sobbed, sharing words of encouragement before joining their team in the huddle to hear their head coach address them for the final time as varsity football players.

“You’ll never replace kids like that,” Travise Pitman said. “They bring something special with their work ethic and knowledge of the game.”

Travise Pitman said all of the seniors left a lasting legacy. Now, he said, the process begins for identifying the program’s next wave of leaders. 

“It’s incredible the way all the seniors have handled themselves,” he said. “It’s always tough to replace those kids but it’s also a chance for other kids to step up that are younger. Starting in January, these kids will get to work. They know what they have to do in the offseason to get themselves ready to play football starting in August.”