Gone was the steady beat of the band, the roar of the student section, the shriek of the referee’s whistle, all the sounds of the game of the football. The scoreboard, earlier proclaiming a 24-21 win for the visiting Millbrook Wildcats over the home Leesville Pride, merely flashed yellow dashed lines.
Braxton Berrios, senior Leesville captain, kneeled in quiet prayer at the 50-yard line. Over the previous four years, he celebrated the better part of three conference championships, 36 wins and 80 touchdowns on the very field he rested upon. Now he reminisced on a magical career, a career that revolutionized and redefined the Leesville football program, in peace.
A heartbreaking loss to arch-rival Millbrook in the first round of the NCHSAA 4AA Playoffs surely wasn’t the way he hoped such a career would end.
But it would have to do.
Berrios’ two touchdowns on the night helped the Pride recover from a 17-7 deficit entering the fourth quarter, but Wildcat quarterback Reid Herring led the Wildcats down the field to retake the lead with 3:08 remaining.
Leesville had one final drive to stay alive, but they couldn’t go the distance. A run attempt by Malcolm Hitchcock, senior, on fourth-and-two with 48 seconds left fell short, ending the Pride’s season with an 8-4 record.
“On fourth-and-two, we’re just trying to get the first down so we can keep the drive alive,” said Chad Smothers, head coach. “We threw it on third down; it was incomplete. We thought we could get the first down running the ball, and we didn’t, and that’s why we’re not playing anymore.”
Hitchcock had tied the game at seven apiece in the first quarter with his only score of the night. However, Jarrett Cervi, Millbrook kicker, made a 35-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to give the visitors a 10-7 advantage at halftime.
After the Wildcats cashed in on a long third-quarter drive to go up by 10, a 50-yard run by Hitchcock set a touchdown that pulled the Pride within three. A blocked punt by Brock Pyper, senior, then gave Leesville great starting field position for their next drive, and an electric fourth-and-15 fake punt conversion by Berrios set up the go-ahead plunge moments later.
The Pride defense was guilty of two costly pass interference penalties on Millbrook’s ensuing drive, though, allowing the visitors to take their eventually decisive 24-21 lead. “[Penalties have] been our Achilles heel for the greater portion of the second half of the season, and it came back and got us in the end,” said Smothers.
Hitchcock racked up 100 rushing yards on 15 attempts for the night, while Berrios accumulated 85 yards on 20 runs. The duo were, together, 11-of-18 for 85 yards passing. Pyper reeled in three catches for 51 yards and Elisiah Richardson, junior, caught four passes for 22 yards.
The Pride, despite finishing with two dramatic and dispiriting home losses, still accomplished much in their 2013 campaign — Leesville’s eighth consecutive winning season. “I’m very proud of the kids,” said Smothers. “The adversity that they went through and the way they kept bouncing back and being resilient and finding ways to compete and win…my hat’s off to them. We came up short tonight, but…they’re going to be remembered for a lot more than how many football games they won.”
For Berrios, Hitchcock, Pyper and the 15 other seniors on the team, Friday’s events will simply mark an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise unbelievable four years in the green and blue. They’ve left behind an untouchable legacy and a still-growing dynasty behind at Leesville Road High School.