LEXINGTON — Saturday morning's challenge was crystal clear when Royal Spring Middle School looked across the 50-yard line and saw multiple linemen in the neighborhood of six feet tall and north of 200 pounds warming up for North Laurel.
A dozen consecutive wins and a regional title emboldened the Titans with confidence they could scale that mighty obstacle in the state semifinals, and two trips into the red zone suggested that talent and toughness could overcame all that brawn.
Cole Messer's 75-yard interception return for a touchdown silenced the second threat in the waning moments of the third quarter, however, and it held up as the only score in a 6-0 Jaguars' victory at Frederick Douglass High School.
North Laurel capped its charge to a state title by running clock, 38-0, over Elkhorn Middle of Frankfort on Sunday.
Royal Spring's other promising drive fizzled at North Laurel's 11-yard line when time ran out in the first half.
The Titans also marched to midfield after a goal-line stand and a fumble recovery by Luke Valencia in the fourth quarter, but another interception — this one by Christian Larkey — sealed the deal.
Neither side could budge the other with its lone full drive of the opening quarter. Valencia's hard running moved the ball into Jaguars' territory before a sack stymied the Titans' progress.
Lucas Smith returned the favor later in the period, dropping North Laurel quarterback Tucker Warren to hold the Jaguars at bay.
That series officially ended early in the second quarter when the heart of the Titans' defense, led by Jacob Fryman, stuffed Warren on a fourth-down quarterback sneak at the Royal Spring 35.
Valencia had two strong runs wiped out by holding calls, but RSMS persisted on a march that took up most of the second stanza. Kaden Drumheller kept it alive with a third-down throw to Ellis Huguely at midfield.
That loosened up the middle for a counter criss-cross to Valencia, who reached the 36 for another first down. Later in the drive, Valencia gained a baker's dozen after taking a direct snap on fourth-and-10, knocking a would-be tackler backward at the finish for good measure.
Royal Spring ran out of timeouts, though, and North Laurel's sack of Drumheller continued the defensive struggle.
A force on both sides of the line, Valencia raced all the way across the field to corral Warren and earn the Titans a turnover on downs at the 30-yard line.
His stop set the table for another grind-it-out march that featured a fearsome foursome of Titan runners. Huguely ran east-to-west for a first down, Hard runs by Ryan Harris and Colten Calloway reached the 50 and moved the chains once more. Fryman popped the next carry into Jags' territory.
Royal Spring tested the airwaves on fourth-and-3. Messer settled under a floater in the flat and averted Titan tacklers from every angle on his journey down the RSMS sideline.
Ben Pearson knocked down the point-after pass, which came with 15 seconds remaining in the third.
North Laurel's defense forced a punt, and a 43-yard scamper by Warren nearly put it away. Royal Spring's hustle to make the stop at the 3 paid off when Valencia scooped a bobbled exchange on the next play.
After Larkey's interception, another fumble would have been Royal Spring's only hope, but Warren handled every snap cleanly and ran out the clock with a series of QB keepers.
Royal Spring made a perfect run though the Bluegrass Conference before taking down defending state champion Johnson County, 20-0, and Highlands, 26-8, in the Region 3 semifinal and championship rounds.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at email@example.com.