WHEELING - Martinsburg coach Dave Walker thought his team had blown it.
Leading 9-7 with 2:58 remaining in the West Virginia Class AAA state championship against No. 1 Huntington, the Bulldogs defense had forced its sixth three-and-out of the afternoon and all the offense had to seemingly do was run out the clock.
As it turns out, it wouldn't be that easy.
Martinsburg quarterback Malique Watkins (7) tries to elude a tackle by Huntington’s Johnathan Spence (6).
Eric Mitchell muffed the ensuing punt and Huntington's Johnathan Spence recovered it at the Martinsburg 42.
''I thought we were going to give it away,'' said Walker, who's team was playing for an unprecedented fourth consecutive state title. ''That's the game right there. A lot of things happen. The ball's shaped funny and it bounces certain ways.''
The Bulldogs defense, which was looking tired after surrendering a 17-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to begin the fourth quarter, was in need of another stop.
It got it.
Tanner Lewis tracked down Nick Tubbs for a 7-yard loss on second down and Malik Cobb came up with a sack on third down to force the Highlanders into a fourth-and-25.
A false start penalty made it even more of a challenge for Huntington quarterback Clark Wilson, who had yet to completed a pass on the day, as he now needed 30 yards for the first down.
Wilson took a snap, dropped back, looked left and found Kilan Nicks breaking toward the sideline.
The 6-foot junior threw it up and Mitchell, who set Huntington up with this opportunity in the first place, batted it down.
Martinsburg was once again state champions with a 9-7 victory.
''You can't do any better,'' Bulldogs quarterback and Samuel Mumley Player of the Game Malique Watkins said. ''Every year of high school we ended with a ring. It feels so good. Four years in a row, that's unheard of.''
Not only did the Martinsburg seniors finish every season hoisting a championship trophy on Wheeling Island Stadium, the group never lost to a West Virginia team during their high school career.
''We have the utmost respect for Martinsburg and their program and what they stand for,'' Highlanders coach Billy Seals said. ''I thought we played well in the second half. We couldn't get anything going offensively in the first half.''
Huntington (13-1) had managed only 25 yards of offense during the first two quarters with one first down.
By the time the game was over, however, the Highlanders outgained Martinsburg (13-1) by 20 yards (103-83).
The real difference in the game came early in the second quarter when the Bulldogs blocked a punt and Jaylen Carson recovered in it the end zone for a safety.
''We put that in this week and we thought we'd be able to do something with it,'' Walker noted. ''Coach (Britt) Sherman, our special teams coordinator, came up with it and it was huge.''
''We didn't block it up the way we should have and that's why you have to take advantage of every opportunity,'' Seals said. ''I said all week long that special teams were going to be the difference in the game.''
Martinsburg scored its only touchdown five and a half minutes later when Watkins found Troy Walker, the coach's son, open in the end zone.
Huntington made it 9-7 with with 5:51 remaining as Paden Christian drove his way in from 2 yards out to cap off the nearly eight and a half minute drive.
''We've been down a couple times this year at the half,'' Seals said. ''Our kids believe in what we do. We thought when we recovered that fumble on the punt, we could get in field goal range and Zach Stevens has been automatic all year long.''
While Seals and the rest of the Highlanders are left wondering what could have been, Walker had all of his focus on the present.
''I'm just going to enjoy this for a while,'' he said. ''I'm happy right now. We'll worry about next year next year.''