Pinecrest running back Nahjiir Seagraves scores a touchdown in the first quarter of the Patriots’ second-round playoff game at Wake Forest on Friday. Turnovers looked large in the Patriots’ 35-21 loss to the Cougars to end the season.

The pandemic has caused a major shift in the high school sports landscape. More than 13 months ago, spring sports seasons were cut short without a fitting end, and the possibility of it happening again for teams this year was, and still is, there.

While the 35-21 loss at Wake Forest wasn’t the way the Pinecrest football team wanted to see the spring 2021 season come to a close, the sendoff by the Patriot fanbase that made the trip to the northern suburb of Raleigh was the fitting end to a season of adversity in the second round of the 4AA football state playoffs.

After the clock hit zero, the Patriots marched single file up through a standing ovation of the visitors’ side of Trentini Stadium. Through a sea of white shirts and attire as the Pinecrest side honored the passing this week of cheerleading coach Crystal Handchen at the game.

“This is the best community support in America,” Pinecrest coach Chris Metzger said. “I really wish we could’ve got it done for Coach Handchen, for our Patriot community and our kids. They battled hard. It just speaks volumes to see these fans and the support we get.”

The eighth-seeded Patriots (6-3) capped off a season where injuries were prevalent, and that issue lingered going into Friday’s matchup with No. 5 Wake Forest (7-1) as the Pinecrest defense played without its senior leader Gibson Macrae, who dressed out but missed the game due to injury.

“You cannot replace a Gibson Macrae. He’s as good of a leader as there’s ever been anywhere. It’s really tough. Gibson was like a coach there on the sideline,” Metzger said.

“What these kids overcame was unbelievable and I’m just so proud to serve them, our staff is proud to serve them.”

But like the Patriots had done all season and the last 13 months of preparation, they powered through the adversity.

Pinecrest scored on back-to-back drives in the first quarter to take a 14-7 lead with less than four minutes to go in the opening quarter. Then the Cougars responded with 28 unanswered points.

Turnovers proved costly for Pinecrest, with three turnovers in the game as well as a blocked field goal attempt, the mistakes were too plentiful to have against a team of Wake Forest’s caliber.

“It hurts. They got us. A lot of things did not go our way and we tip our hat to them,” Metzger said. “It wasn’t our night, but the kids battled.”

The first turnover, a fumble by sophomore running back Nahjiir Seagraves on Pinecrest’s first offensive drive of the game inside the Wake Forest 10-yard-line was quickly rectified two plays later when Nick Garbark scooped up a fumble by the Cougars in the red zone.

That set up Seagraves to redeem himself with a 3-yard touchdown run and put Pinecrest up 7-0.

Michael Dipasquale scored his first of four touchdowns in the game on the next Wake Forest series to tie the score.

Pinecrest’s answer to that touchdown came quickly when Xavier Dowd broke through the traffic and scored on an 80-yard run to put Pinecrest back on top, 14-7, until midway through the second quarter.

The Patriots had no trouble moving the ball in the second half with 146 yards of total offense, but seven points were to show for it. Those points came after a Mac McFadden fumble recovery gave the offense a short field that Dowd capped off with a 5-yard touchdown run to make it 35-21 ballgame with 5:23 left.

The Pinecrest offense got the ball back with 3:25 left in the game, and the third and final turnover of the game, a Braxton Barber interception by the Cougars’ Fuller Howard with less than two minutes left, closed out the night.

Earlier in the second half, Pinecrest tried to put points on the board on a 47-yard field goal try by Braden Cole that Wake Forest’s Dashaun Grant jumped in front of for a block. Wake Forest scored three plays later on a Chad Hillman 54-yard touchdown pass to David Sanchez to make it a 28-14 margin midway through the third quarter.

Both times the Wake Forest offense got the ball in the third, it scored to push a 21-14 halftime margin out to 35-14 going into the fourth.

Dowd rushed for 139 yards to lead all rushers in the game. Seagraves added 105 yards for the Patriots.

To go along with his four touchdowns, Dipasquale had 104 yards rushing and 38 yards receiving.

The loss is the fourth time in eight seasons that Wake Forest ended the Patriots’ season in the playoffs.

“We ask a lot of them, and you hate it because the elite eight is great but you want that kind of Cinderella story to keep going,” Metzger said.

Wake Forest will play at Rolesville next Friday with a spot to play in the 4AA state championship game on the line.

Contact Jonathan Bym at (910) 693-2470 or jonathan@thepilot.com.

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