ABBEVILLE — Noah Bell had been in a war. He looked the part.
The Saluda quarterback’s long hair was bathed in sweat as he raced around Hite Stadium and hugged anyone willing to celebrate with him.
The four-year starter for the Tigers, who took over as a 14-year-old behind center in the ninth grade, had just lifted his team to a 32-28 upset victory against No. 1-ranked Abbeville in the Upper State championship game Friday night.
For childhood friends and teammates Bell and wide receiver Dallan Wright, this has been an incredible four-year journey. They had come close to beating the Panthers in the past, but each time, Abbeville found a way to win.
Not this time. Wright, who had 207 yards receiving, and Bell, who passed for 344 yards, are headed to next Friday’s state title game, where Saluda will square off at 5 p.m. against Barnwell at Charles W. Johnson Stadium at Benedict College in Columbia.
Bell reflected on his journey, which includes this win — the first loss for Abbeville at home in five years.
But he took a moment to pause and reflect.
“Ah, man, you’re going to make me cry now,” Bell said when asked what they journey has meant to him. “We came here in ninth grade. We had a goal. We knew Abbeville was the team to beat. They got the better of us the last couple of years, but they didn’t tonight. We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. We knew we wanted Abbeville at Hite Stadium, and we took care of them.”
Trailing 28-17 in the fourth quarter, Bell scored from 4 yards out with 5:34 remaining, then connected with Wright in the corner of the end zone on the two-point conversion — a one-handed grab by the receiver — to pull within striking distance. Saluda got the ball back again on its own 32-yard line with 3:52 left. Bell drove the Tigers down the field and punched in what ended up being the game-winning score with 2:30 left.
“We shot ourselves in the foot in the first half — I think we had three turnovers and a couple of dropped balls,” Bell said. “But, in the locker room, we said that our best is better than their best. We just didn’t play our best in the first half. The second half, our defense got turnovers and our offense cut it on. It was a great team win.”
Standing beside Bell after the game was Wright, a friend and teammate of Bell’s since rec league days.
“If it ain’t already known, he’s the best receiver in (Class) 2A,” Bell said of Wright. “I love this man. I’m just happy to share this with him.”
Wight had two touchdown receptions, including an 80-yarder.
“It’s just concentration,” Wright said. “I look for the big plays. I want the ball when the game is on the line. Coming into the game, we started out with a turnover, so we knew we had to play up. We had to play better. The defense was playing a heckuva game; so, we knew we had to have their back.”
Wright said the Saluda community stood behind the team and never gave up on it, even though the Tigers had some rough patches down the stretch and ended up as the No. 3 seed out of Region 2-2A.
“We’ve been wanting them (Abbeville) ever since they beat us the first time,” Wright said. “We were ready to prove ourselves. We just came out and executed at the end.”