For 48 minutes, the underdog Ponte Vedra Sharks battled valiantly against nationally ranked American Heritage for the District 5A state title. The Sharks matched the heavily favored Patriots touchdown for touchdown, but found themselves trailing by a pair of extra points 35-33 as the game headed into its final minute. Before the Sharks could mount their typical final game-winning drive, time ran out on their remarkable bid for an undefeated championship season.
Ponte Vedra showed early on that they belonged in the title game despite what odds makers were predicting. They took the opening kickoff and scored on the second play of the game, a brilliant 75-yard catch and run pass play by Marshall Few and Nick Tronti. An elusive snap cost the Sharks the extra point. It was an unfortunate error that would ultimately lead to their defeat.
Sharks Coach Matt Toblin, showing immediately that he did not intend to play conservatively, called for an on-sides kickoff. Connor McDonough pounced on the ball for Ponte Vedra and Tronti’s high-powered offense was back on the field. This time the Sharks needed four plays to score. A handoff to Hal Swan for short yardage, a 20-yard pass to Few on the same pattern that went for the first touchdown, a quarterback keeper good for five and a swing pass to Swan covered the final 15-yards for a touchdown. With nine minutes left in the quarter, the Sharks led 13-0 and the Patriots had not yet run a single play.
The Patriots had to be shocked by this upstart team that was not ranked in the top 200 nationally, but it did not prevent them from playing catch-up. This time they were prepared for the Sharks’ ensuing on-sides kick and quickly covered the remaining 63 yards to pull within 13-7.
With a second and 15 from their 15-yard line, an intentional grounding penalty inexplicably pushed the Sharks back to their own one-yard line, forcing a punt that resulted in good field position for the Patriots. Heritage drove on the ground for the go-ahead score at the four-minute mark of the first quarter.
The Patriots’ powerful D-line sacked Tronti for a 10-yard loss but he bounced back up to complete a pass to Kit Connelly for 10 yards. Still the Sharks were forced to punt again. Heritage moved to the red zone on their next possession, but the Sharks’ defense forced a turnover on downs as the quarter ended.
After Ponte Vedra went three and out, the Patriots took a 21-13 lead despite a touchdown saving tackle on the prior play by Noah Solaun.
Tronti then engineered an 11-play, 70-yard drive that featured the diverse Shark offense. Runs by Swan, a keeper by Tronti and passes to Jake McGuire and Few put Ponte Vedra within one, 21-20. Few’s second catch of the drive in which he wrestled the ball from the Patriot defender produced his second touchdown of the game.
Ponte Vedra held Heritage at bay for the final three minutes of the half. JB Shepherd’s pass defense on the final play of the half was key. The Sharks went to the locker room trailing 21-20 and feeling confident.
The third quarter saw the Sharks force a Heritage punt. Few then caught a pass good for 10 yards and a first down at the Patriots’ 39. Facing a fourth down at the Patriots’ 33, Chris Howard’s attempt at a 50-yard field goal sailed wide of the mark.
Heritage controlled the ball for the remainder of the quarter before scoring on the first play of the fourth quarter. They led 28-20, still a one score game.
Once again the Sharks showed their mettle. Tronti hit Few for nine yards, then Swan for 10. Facing a third and 10, Tronti connected with McGuire who made a magnificent leaping catch good for 12 yards. Tronti went back to McGuire for 10 more yards then found Swan open for 25 and a first down at the Heritage five. Tronti then scored on a keeper to make the score 28-26. The Ponte Vedra attempt at the two-point conversion failed.
A breakdown on kickoff coverage gave Heritage the ball at the Shark 25. They quickly answered the previous Shark touchdown to move in front 35-26 – a two-score lead with five minutes to play.
The “never quit” Sharks battled back. Tronti ran for four yards drawing a personal foul for a late hit by the Patriots. Tronti ran twice more for 12 yards and a first down at mid-field. The successive keepers by the Shark quarterback had to help spring Swan for 15 yards and a first down at the Heritage 35. Now it was time for JD Pirris to make two big plays. He pulled in a pass for 12 yards, then another for eight more. Tronti finished the drive slipping through a huge hole for the score. Ponte Vedra kicked the PAT and trailed by two 35-33 with three minutes remaining and needing a field goal to win. But time was not on their side.
After Ponte Vedra’s on-sides kick-off attempt failed, the Sharks needed a defensive stand. They got it but not before the Patriots made a big first down. A bad snap then pushed Heritage back 20 yards but precious seconds ticked away before the Patriots finally punted. Time ran out on the Sharks before they could run another play.