As the rain poured down and the hoards of Wildcat fans filed quietly from the stands, the Leesville football team celebrated a crucial 7-3 win over rival Millbrook without an ounce of gloom.
A seven-yard touchdown run by Braxton Berrios, senior captain, with 1:34 remaining in the first half made all the difference in a rain-soaked defensive thriller.
Millbrook (7-3, 4-2) received the ball with a chance for a game-winning drive in the closing minutes, but the Pride defense — led by Berrios and fellow seniors Malcolm Hitchcock and Brock Pyper — forced an incompletion on a fourth-and-9 near midfield with 27 seconds remaining to seal the victory for Leesville (8-2, 5-1).
“You couldn’t throw the ball, really. It was terrible. You’ve got to adjust and you’ve got to go try and win the game,” said Berrios. “We had a minute left and we had to make a stop and we came up big.”
His lone score answered a 24-yard field goal by Millbrook’s Jarrett Cervi earlier in the second quarter, the Wildcats’ only points of the evening. Reid Herring, highly-touted sophomore quarterback, was held to just seven completions for 34 yards as the Leesville defense conceded only 186 yards in total.
Making his return after a five-game absence, Berrios was used carefully and cautiously, finishing his offensive performance with 15 carries for 67 yards.
“It was exhilarating,” he said. “I felt like I’d never been on the field…before. It’s good to get a win. I’ve got to give it to my team; we fought, we battled.”
Hitchcock rushed 23 times for 144 yards, maintaining his star status even with Berrios’ return to the lineup, while Elisiah Richardson, junior, added 12 yards on six touches. Leesville recorded 221 of their 238 total yards via the ground game.
“It was one of those nights,” said Chad Smothers, head coach. “We did the things that we needed to do to win the game. It wasn’t pretty, but it doesn’t really matter.”
The early-going belonged to the Wildcats, who held the ball almost exclusively for the first quarter. An accidental onside kick gave them ball back immediately after taking the 3-0 lead, but Leesville’s defense forced a punt that began to shift the momentum.
Millbrook had another chance for a potential scoring drive during the third quarter, but was stopped for a two-yard loss on a fourth-and-one just shy of midfield.
Two 30-yard scampers by Hitchcock and Berrios, respectively, helped Leesville win a field-position battle in the final frame. Millbrook’s offense began both of their final two possessions inside the 10 yard line.
“The thing about a rivalry [is] somebody else has to win once in a while,” said Berrios with a smirk when asked about the impact of the win. “They haven’t beaten us since…I couldn’t tell you since when.”
Leesville returns home next Friday for an unofficial Cap-8 championship game against Wakefield, who also moved to 5-1 in the conference (9-1 overall) with a 28-13 win over Heritage Friday. The Wolverines’ one loss came in a shocking 40-19 rout at Millbrook two weeks ago.
“We’re going to try to get all the ice bags on our guys and get them healed up…we’ll go to practice on Monday and try to come up with a plan for Wakefield,” said Smothers. “They’re a good football team, and they want to win it just as bad as we do. I look forward to the challenge, and they will present one.”
However, it’s likely he, along with the rest of the team, at least spend the weekend enjoying the aftermath of Friday’s exciting victory.
“The players on our football team, from what they’ve gone through this year going back to Heritage (a dispiriting 30-7 loss in late September), the resilience they’ve shown is unbelievable,” Smothers said.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of people than I am of these 60-plus [players].”