The connection between the game and the season on the whole is inevitable – at first the points came easily for Leesville, until slowly the opposition fought back. But eventually, when what mattered most was on the line, and when time became the enemy, our last ounce of energy just wasn’t enough.
In Friday’s game, the first quarter consisted of two shows of dominance by Leesville (9-2 overall), showing the ability to charge slowly but surely down the field and into the end zone. The Pride scored early on two short runs by D.J. Hunt to gain a 14-0 lead over the visiting Mustangs (8-3).
Throughout the rest of game, the lead switched between the two teams relentlessly – the Pride led at halftime by only a field goal, as the Leesville defense had taken some pressure from Middle Creek running back Naylaan Lopez, who continued to find running room all evening. Leesville also turned the ball over twice in the second quarter, giving up valuable time and field position.
In the third quarter, Garrett Leathan, Mustangs quarterback, tossed a TD pass to Kevin Jones to lead 20-17. Shortly afterward, QB Josh Stanley heaved a long bomb to David Lowery for a 50 yard pass play for a touchdown, bringing Leesville up 24-20.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jones dodged the Leesville blockers to run into the end zone for another Middle Creek score.
Once again, the Pride fought back, responding with a hard-earned dive for a TD by Braxton Berrios.
Despite this, yet another big play was given up to the Mustangs, as Dylan Gaines, RB, ran 50 yards for another score. Now down 34-31, Leesville depended on one last grueling and methodical field-length drive.
The Pride successfully pushed to the 25-yard line as time expired, and Chris Lehman kicked the tying field goal to send the already-thrilling game into overtime. The tension that had gathered over the anxious Loonies dispersed as relief and celebration welled up from the crowd.
During OT, Middle Creek had first possession, and successfully ran a scoring play from the 10-yard line. According to overtime rules, Leesville had to score a touchdown or lose the game. Ryan Mangum rushed through for the six points, but now the game came down to a crucial decision – to kick the tying extra point for another overtime, or to attempt a risky two-point conversion for the win.
“We wanted to score, to win the game right there,” said Cody Pyper of the decision. “We were kinda worn out.”
In what was guaranteed to be the game’s final play, Ryan Mangum was held down at the line of scrimmage, and Middle Creek preserved a 1-point lead to win the game 41-40.
“They played it perfectly,” said Bryan Ball, who was positioned on the offensive line during the play. “I guess they were in the right place at the time.”
The Mustangs will meet Garner and its explosive offense in the second round.
But the real story here is about why Leesville isn’t the team headed to face the red-hot Trojans, in a season that seemed early on to be bound for the depths of the state playoffs.
“Any of these games could’ve gone either way,” Ball speculated. “It was definitely possible for us to win all of our games. At Panther Creek we were a few yards from the end zone, and the other losses were in overtime.”
Hopefully, the unforeseen shortcomings of this year can be corrected and improved in the coming seasons – Wakefield and Wake Forest-Rolesville, still going strong in the playoffs, will still be a serious threat to Cap 8 relevance. But despite the graduation of playmakers such as Josh Stanley and Brandon Pittman, hope is by no means lost for the immediate future.
“We have a really good shot of success next year,” Ball claimed. “Next year we still have D.J. Hunt, the Berrios brothers, and almost the whole offensive line returning. The key is just to work hard in the offseason.”
“We had a lot of juniors in starting roles this year,” said Pyper, “so we have the experience… I think we’ll still be playing [this time next year].”
As the Loonies approach yet another spring of agonizing anticipation for football to come back in season, it’s clear that there are plenty of bright spots to look for in the 2010 season as well.
“We were like a family this season – thinks just worked,” said Jake Joyner, lineman.
“We’re really just four yards and two overtimes from being undefeated,” added starting quarterback Stanley
Even as the Middle Creek celebration faded last Friday, and as the Loonies and Leesville fans slowly piled out of Hamilton Stadium one last time, some of the Pride players remained on the field, motionless, contemplating and imagining what might have been.
The lights went out in Hamilton Stadium, and still they lingered.