Augusta's defense had made plays all night against Wichita Trinity, but one more was needed late in the fourth quarter of Friday's game.
The Knights led the Orioles 24-21 with less than three minutes left to go and had the ball. That is, until the Orioles' defense, which had kept running back Tyler Burns in check all night, stripped him of the ball and recovered it at its own 45.
The Orioles made it count. Three plays and one unsportsmanlike penalty later, Tristan Finch connected with Connor Hurst for a 31-yard touchdown to lift the Orioles to a 28-24 victory. The Oriole defense held off Trinity's final drive after Chaydon Carter made his second interception of a Matt Jones pass to seal it.
"It was one of the most exciting games, to win a playoff game like that," senior Anthony Castillo said.
The go-ahead score capped the Orioles' comeback after they found themselves down 21-0. It took great passes from Finch, great pressures from the defensive front and even a surprise onside kick. All night, the Orioles did whatever was necessary to get back into it.
"We had a belief that we could win this game, and when we have that and we do what we're supposed to do, great things can happen," Finch said.
For the Orioles, it's their second win of the season and first in Districts. The Orioles were motivated after blowing last week's game and facing a must-win Friday.
"Losing that last game pushed us even more," Hurst said, referring to the Orioles' loss to Rose Hill after leading 26-5. "That was our goal was to win a District game. It feels great."
Finch played his best game of the season. He led the Orioles on touchdown drives of 80, 40, 80 and 55 yards. Finch completed 21 of 34 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 68 yards on 23 carries and another score. Carter, Chase Hull and Hurst each caught one touchdown.
"I didn't have any turnovers," Finch said. "There was no let-off in that whole game. I think I got into it early with those swings and X-quicks. That just carried out throughout the game....Our line did a great job tonight. I hardly got pressured at all."
Hurst caught 11 passes for 170 yards, both game highs. He was able to make plays on some of those quick receiver screens early on. He also made plays at the intermediate and deep levels of Trinity's secondary. On the game-winner, Finch rolled out to his right and had two receivers getting ready to break open. He made the right read as his pass led Hurst to get open near the sideline in the end zone.
"Just kept my eyes on the ball and watched it all the way in," Hurst said.
Carter also had two catches for 23 yards. Castillo had two for 27 and Brandon Smith had five for 32.
The rally made up for several mistakes. Augusta gave away a touchdown on a punt fumble miscue that turned into a Trinity scoop-and-score. The Knights led 7-0 after that play for the only points of the first quarter.
The Orioles had another bad play on special teams after they allowed Trinity's Jacob Johnson to return a punt to Augusta's 4. Burns punched it in for a score and a 14-0 lead. The Orioles fumbled on their next possession that gave Trinity a short field again. Trinity quarterback Jones later turned a broken play into a 17-yard scramble for a score and a 21-0 lead.
Though Burns scored twice, he really was kept in check all night by Augusta. He finished with just 93 yards on 27 carries. Burns went off on Augusta in the second half of last year's contest that propelled Trinity to that win.
"Putting pressure on him, that's how we were doing it," senior defensive lineman Blake Aitchison said of stopping Burns.
"We kept him more lateral than vertical, just pushed him toward the sideline," Hurst said.
Coach Roger Robben said he knew Burns wasn't at 100 percent with a nagging ankle injury, but he said the Orioles' ability to keep him contained was critical. The defense also forced and recovered a couple fumbles, got four sacks, three of them by Dakota Thompson, and the two interceptions by Carter.
"Our defense did a heck of job stepping up in key situations and making some big plays," Robben said.
With just 2:56 left before halftime, the Orioles already started shifting momentum. Hull had a 14-yard run and Finch completed passes of 23 and 30 yards to Hurst as the offense methodically moved 80 yards down the field. Finch capped the drive with a 12-yard TD toss to Carter.
"He put it together really well tonight. He saw things a little bit more," Robben said of Finch. "But I also thought it the offensive line's best game."
Then, the Orioles recovered that surprise onside kick that gave them new life. Augusta capitalized on the opportunity as Finch used his legs move the offense. He capped the 40-yard drive with a one-yard run on a spinning second effort.
Just seconds before halftime, Carter jumped a slant pass for an interception and ran it back the length of the field. He would've scored on the play if not for an illegal blocking penalty.
The Orioles kept momentum to start the second half. Augusta marched 80 yards on 12 plays that chewed up 5:27 to tie the game 21-21 after Hull hauled in a 21-yard TD reception. The Knights answered with a whopping 19-play drive, but the Orioles' defense stepped up and held them to a field goal for a 24-21 lead. After an exchange of punts and the big turnover by Burns, the Orioles were set up for their late-game heroics.
"Knew we didn't have to get it all back in one play. We had enough time," Finch said. "...Don't let the moment get too big for you."