By Bill Howard
West High School’s football team once again made it look too easy, this time at home against Central in the quarterfinal round of the Region 2-5A state playoffs.
The 63-26 win was the Rebels’ second this season over the Bobcats. The regional rivals played on Oct. 29 and West won 49-14.
“I was worried about beating them 49-14 the first time we played them,” said Lamar Brown, Rebels’ coach. “Our kids came in focused and ready to go this week. And we’re happy we get to spend Thanksgiving together.”
In a span of fewer than eight minutes in the second quarter, the Rebels went from leading 14-7 to 42-7, and put the game well out of reach. Central didn’t fold its tent, however, and even scrapped back enough to have a couple of opportunities to make it interesting.
But a touchdown pass and interception return for a score by West in the fourth quarter slammed the door, and set up a Knoxville semifinal showdown with Powell Friday night. Powell won its quarterfinal over Rhea Co., 27-13.
“It was a crazy one,” said Brown. “We knew Central was gonna come in here and battle. They’re a great football team, well-coached. Our kids came out really ready to play.”
“They’re tough,” said Bobcats’ coach Nick Craney. “They can run the ball extremely well and when you try to stack the box they can put it behind you in the passing game. And they’re tough as nails on defense.”
Craney was correct about West’s rushing attack. The Bobcats (11-2) ran for 291 yards, led by Brayden Latham’s 185 on 22 carries and three scores. Zion Mattress rushed for 52 yards on but 10 carries, but left with an injury in the second quarter. Brown expects his return Friday.
“Brayden’s a warrior,” said Brown. “Running game, especially in that first half, was really good. It opened up some shots in the passing game.”
Four of those passing “shots” were touchdown throws from quarterback Carson Jessie. They were part of his 205 yards from 11 completions on 16 attempts.
“They were getting extra men in the box and we were fortunate enough to take advantage of those with some throws and catches for touchdowns,” said Brown.
And the Rebels’ defense contributed mightily as well, forcing six turnovers, two of which were picks by Latham. Central’s total offense was only 169 yards, a mere six by rushing.
The game was chock full of big plays on both offense and defense, turnovers, penalties, momentum swings and both individual and team stats. The 28-point, second-quarter tidal wave by the Rebels was the difference.
Up 14-7 with 11 minutes to go in the quarter, Jessie hit Thad Sterling for a 28-yard touchdown to make it 21-7. After forcing a punt, West drove 69 yards on nine plays to lead 28-7 when Latham ran it in from the one.
On Central’s (8-4) ensuing possession, Latham picked off a pass from Bobcats’ quarterback Ryan Bolton at Central’s 45 and returned it to the 16. His two-yard plunge three plays later made it 35-7.
Another interception, this one by West’s Jaqurius Wren, set up Jessie’s 29-yard touchdown connection to Cooper Shymlock and a 42-7 lead. The half ended 49-14.
Central would stick around, pulling to 49-26 midway through the third. But West’s two scores in the fourth nailed it down.
“We made too many mistakes,” said Craney. “You can’t do that in a big game. Ryan is gonna be upset with himself for some of the interceptions but he led us all the way through and kept us in it like the leader that he is.”
“The credit goes to Coach Craney for battling back,” said Brown. “His kids never quit.”
Craney reflected on his season that came to an end. “The senior class is gonna be proud of what they’ve done,” he said. “They’ve been a part of six straight quarterfinals (including two state titles). We’ll be ok next year. We got a lot of experience coming back.”
For Brown and the Rebels, a win over the Panthers Friday would allow them to play for a state championship.
“Powell is an unbelievable football team, a really, really talented football team,” Brown said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. But we’ll come in Monday and we’ll have a game plan.”