Central claims playoff berth, 41-33

Holbert stops Mountaineers at 1-yard line

By Steve Williams

Fourth place never felt so good. That’s what the post-game grin on Central Coach Nick Craney’s face indicated.

Craney’s Bobcats had just won a battle with Heritage for a Region 2-5A playoff berth.

With a thriller-packed ending, Central held off the Mountaineers, 41-33, at Jack Renfro Stadium in the foothills of the Smokies. One of the season’s most exciting games also was seen by a Rivalry Thursday TV audience.

The victory lifted Central to 1-2 in region play and 5-4 overall, while the loss left Heritage (0-4 and 3-6) out of the running, despite a gutsy comeback effort.

“As a coach, when people talk about exciting games, that means there were moments that went really well and moments that make you want to rip your hair out as a coach, truthfully,” said Craney. “This game had a little bit of both, but our guys kept fighting all the way to the very last play of the game to find a way to get a win. So I’m proud of them for getting the win.”

The win also should add some gravy to the Bobcats’ regular season home finale Thursday against Halls in the annual Battle of Black Oak Ridge. Third place in the region will be on the line.

Heritage may be on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs, but Coach Joe Osovet’s Mountaineers will have the opportunity to go out with a big win Friday at playoff bound Clinton, which has wrapped up third place in Region 3-5A.

Central jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead over Heritage. On the opening kickoff, the Mountaineers’ Dominick Stevens fielded the football at the 10-yard line but was stripped of the ball by Javaston Baggett and sophomore teammate Nick Chittum recovered it at the Heritage 36.

Frank Johnson IV (5-10, 215) rumbled for 29 yards on his first carry and scored from the 1 on third-and-goal. Devon Cole added his first of five PAT kicks.

Heritage threatened to score on its second possession, but Noah Lyons intercepted a pass at the Central 7.

The Bobcats’ great start continued and they enjoyed their biggest advantage (34-10) with 7:30 remaining in the third quarter.

But the Mountaineers, led by senior quarterback Wesley Deck, a tough 5-11, 203-pounder, chipped away at the deficit and with two minutes to go in the game were within eight points and had fourth-and-1 at the Central 1-yard line.

Jake Holbert, the Bobcats’ 6-1, 295-pound nose guard, put a stop to it right there.

“They ran that play a bunch already, so I knew it was coming to the guards,” recalled Holbert, “and I just hit the center and he (Deck) was right there and I just hit him and tackled him.”

Still, the game wasn’t over. Central was backed up at its 1-yard line with 1:48 on the clock. Taking the snap in the shot gun formation, Johnson ran for 3 yards on two carries to the 4. The Bobcats were then flagged for a delay of game, which moved the ball back to the 2-yard line. Johnson picked up 6 yards on third-and-10. Baggett, sophomore punter, standing 2 yards deep in the end zone, got his punt away.

With 8.5 seconds on the clock, Heritage still had time for two more plays. Deck’s pass to Clay Thomas was bobbled and dropped inside the Central 2-yard line. Nine-tenths of a second were left for Deck to get off one more pass. His desperation throw was touched by a couple of players downfield but fell incomplete.

There were many big plays and performances in the game.

Johnson powered his way into the end zone on three short runs and totaled 173 yards on 30 carries.

Senior defensive end Silas Geasland intercepted a pass just as it was released and raced 75 yards to extend the Bobcats’ lead to 20-0 in the second quarter.

Sophomore DB Torin McAfee intercepted two passes, including the one he returned 65 yards that gave Central its biggest lead. He also had 10 solo stops.

Holbert finished with nine solo tackles and one assist. Junior DE Jayden Dixson contributed seven solo stops, three assists and one TFL.

Dante Strickland won a one-on-one duel in the secondary to haul in a 38-yard pass from QB Samuel Myers to set up Johnson’s second TD.

A 38-yard pass from Myers to Cory Bingham set up Johnson’s third TD and made it 27-7 with 23.7 seconds left in the half.

Heritage drove 72 yards in 15 plays and Zak Davidson caught a TD pass from Deck on fourth-and-3 for its first score. An 18-yard run by Deck got the Mountaineers close enough for Bladimir Artiga to kick a 36-yard field goal on the last play of the half and cut Central’s lead to 27-10.

After a 37-yard punt return by Stevens in the third quarter, Deck scored on a 4-yard run and added a 2-point run to get Heritage within two scores (34-18).

Deck added a 23-yard TD run and another 2-point run to reduce the Bobcats’ lead to 34-26 with 8:51 to go.

Strickland went down low to make a spectacular 38-yard grab at the Heritage 36 and Daniel Sackie followed that up, catching a 35-yard sideline pass from Myers for a TD to make it 41-26.

Davidson got behind Strickland in the secondary and pulled in a 45-yard pass from Deck with 4:47 left as Heritage trimmed the deficit again to eight points.

A block below the waist penalty on Central’s kickoff return backed up the Bobcats, who were forced to punt again. Stevens returned it to the Bobcats’ 25.

Three straight runs by Deck moved the ball to the Central 4, but an illegal shift pushed Heritage back to the 15. A 5-yard keeper by Deck and a 9-yard pass to Stevens got it back to the 1 again with 2:00 on the clock.

That’s when Holbert stepped up and made the tackle of the game.