Nation Ford’s Josh Ameo celebrates with the Falcons’ fans after they beat JL Mann in the Upper State finals Tuesday night. Photos by Rob Upton

The Nation Ford boys’ lacrosse team held off a furious comeback to beat J.L. Mann 8-7 in the Class 5A Upper State Championship game Tuesday night in Fort Mill, earning a spot in Saturday’s state title game and improving to 19-0 on the season.

Tyler DeMarco scored a hat-trick for the Falcons, including a crucial second-half goal that proved to be the decisive winner.

Nation Ford scored seven unanswered goals to open the game and entered halftime up 7-1. But the visiting Patriots fought back and cut the lead to 8-7 with about 40 seconds on the clock. The Patriots had one final chance to send the game into overtime, but the Nation Ford defense held strong, sparking a huge cheer of relief and pride from the Falcons faithful.

“Relief, that’s what I felt,” said Nation Ford head coach Cory Turner after the game. “They would not quit. There’s a reason (J.L. Mann) was defending state champions. They gave us everything we could handle. We had a great first half, and they made some adjustments. We’re very blessed to win.”

With the win, Nation Ford next faces Wando, the winner of Tuesday night’s Lower State Championship game. Wando breezed past St. James in that game 22-11.

Nation Ford and Wando will now meet Saturday, April 30 in the state title game at Irmo High School’s W.C. Hawkins Stadium in Columbia. The boy’s final will begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Class 5A girl’s lacrosse state final, which starts at 11 a.m.

Nation Ford last made the state championship game in 2017, when the Falcons fell to Wando 19-9.

Senior Tyler DeMarco scored three goals and juniors Luke Letterhos and Owen Ameo each scored two goals to lead the Falcons’ scoring exploits. Junior Ashton Tauzin scored his lone goal within the first minute of the game, giving Nation Ford plenty of confidence in the opening half.

The Falcons then followed that up with a raft of goals from Ameo, Letterhos, and DeMarco, while keeping the Patriots at bay for nearly the entire opening 24 minutes.

Ryan Doherty’s goal finally stopped the bleeding for J.L. Mann, which entered the break trailing 7-1.

DeMarco said the Falcons were buoyed by the strong fan support at the game, including the “Dirty Birds” student section.

“They got our adrenaline pumping,” he said. “We were going crazy in the first half.”

But after some halftime adjustments, J.L. Mann came back with a determined mindset. Sophomore Camden Cremmins tacked on two goals in the space of two minutes, while Doherty scored his second and third goals on back-to-back offensive plays to cut the deficit to just 7-5.

DeMarco secured his hat-trick with a goal just 19.6 seconds before the end of the third quarter to push the Falcons lead back to three.

But still, J.L. Mann was not ready to give up. Kevin Miller cut the lead to 8-6 with less than a minute played in the fourth quarter, and Jaxson Lovelace made it 8-7 with a cool behind-the-back shot that caught the Nation Ford goalie off-guard.

Tauzin had a goal waved off with eight minutes to play for a crease violation, despite a sweet 360-degree pivot and shot.

The game came down to the last opportunity for J.L. Mann, but the Nation Ford defense was able to force the Patriots into a tough shot. Junior goalie Owen Collette was able to snag the ball and launched it into the stratosphere as the final seconds ticked away and the home crowd realized that Nation Ford had survived.

The Falcons rushed to celebrate with the “Dirty Birds” and soaked in the moment, post-game.

“We were telling the guys, they’ve got to gut it out,” Turner said. “We knew we could stop them if we dug down deep. Once I saw our goalie get it and I saw it flying through the air, I knew we were going back to state.”

DeMarco, who was on the sideline for the final play, said his adrenaline was pumping.  

“Words can’t describe how pumped I was,” he said. “To come out on top is amazing. We still have to put in a ton of work, but we’ll get there and hopefully win a state championship.”

Nation Ford’s Ashton Tauzin takes a shot during the early part of the 5A Upper State championship Tuesday night.