A 73-yard punt return touchdown by Hickory junior Cameron Stinson with 34.6 seconds left gave the Red Tornadoes a dramatic 21-15 comeback victory over Newton-Conover at Gurley Stadium on Friday.
“I was just ready to run like a track meet,” Stinson said. “I was just running for my life. When I got out there, I just knew I had to pick my team up.”
The win by Hickory, who trailed 15-7 at the halftime, is its first against the Red Devils since 2007.
"I'm happy for our football team. I'm happy for our football staff," said Red Tornadoes coach Tom Harper. "I'm happy in the fact that our kids have gone through a lot of adversity and didn't give up. I know how important this game is to the Hickory community. It’s nice to get that first win under our belts, but again, I'm like anyone else. I'm thinking about Maiden right now, but I'm going to try to enjoy this as much as I can tonight and let our kids enjoy it because they deserve it.”
Newton-Conover took a 7-0 quickly in the first quarter due in part to its defense.
A lateral pass by Hickory quarterback Raheim Connelly was fumbled by running back Jordan Lockhart on the third play from scrimmage, enabling Newton-Conover defender Joshuwell McCombs to recover it deep in N-C territory.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Red Devil running back Marquis Pope scampered 11 yards to make it a 7-0 advantage early for the home team.
Before the half was over, Newton-Conover had added to its lead.
Following a stalled drive and punt by the Red Tornadoes, the Red Devils took advantage, going 66 yards in 10 plays.
The long drive was capped by a one-yard touchdown run from N-C fullback Matt Coulter on second and goal. The extra point was muffed, making it a 13-0 Red Devil lead after a quarter of play.
Hickory continued its struggles on the first possession of the second quarter.
After going three and out, a snap sailed over punter Daniel Davis' head and went out of the back of the end zone for a safety, giving Newton-Conover two more points and a 15-0 lead.
Miscues before the play started also hurt Hickory all night long. The Red Tornadoes tallied nine penalties for 60 yards, including three delay of game penalties and two offsides penalties.
Looking for a spark late in the first half, the Red Tornadoes found one in quarterback Matt Williams.
The junior signal-caller raced 43 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter to put Hickory on the scoreboard just before halftime.
Despite the big play, N-C head coach Brint Russell said he was confident with his team's lead heading into the second half.
"Up 15-7, you think you are still ok," he said. "You've got a lead. You are going into halftime. You get the ball back coming into the second half. (Williams' touchdown) was definitely a momentum shift, but it wasn't anything that we didn't think we could overcome coming into the third quarter."
After tallying 141 total yards in the first half, the Red Devils' offense was shut down in the second half behind Hickory's defensive adjustments.
Newton-Conover managed only 56 yards in the second half — all on the ground.
“They were really sending penetration hard to the inside, and we were spilling everything to the outside,” Russell said. "They did a really good job of that. We made adjustments like we always do because it is potluck at what we are going to see because everyone tries everything to stop the option. We tried to get to the outside where they were vulnerable, but their perimeter guys did a much better job of coming up, disengaging blocks and making plays than our offensive guys did of blocks."
After Newton-Conover stalled on its opening drive of the second half, Hickory capitalized on an 11-play, 79-yard drive that ate up 5:45 of time on the clock.
Williams scored for the second time in the game on a five-yard run on fourth down and two. After a two-point conversion, the game was tied 15-15 heading into the fourth quarter.
Trying to kick start its offense, the Red Devils tried running to the outside, as well as passing, but they could only muster two first downs total in the second half.
"We became stagnant offensively," Russell said. "Then we went to our bag of tricks throwing the football a little bit and getting some counter isos and reverses going. They are well coached in that 4-3 (defense) they put in that we couldn't make adjustments, too. Ultimately, it cost us at the end of the ball game."
With the clock winding down on regulation, the Red Devils were forced to punt using Cline, who replaced the injured Chandler Johnson due to a leg injury.
Stinson, who also recorded an interception on defense in the game, took Cline's line-drive kick 73 yards down the right side of the field for the score, as the visitor's side of the bleachers erupted with cheers.
Harper said he is proud of Stinson, who was sat out for the first quarter of Friday's game due to a coaches' decision.
"Cameron was disciplined and didn't play at all in the first quarter at all. He handled it like a man," Harper said. "He did great things during the week. He came out and decided to change the game in a heartbeat. He is that kind of a player. I'm just proud of our whole football team. This is huge. This is what we needed to get us over the hump."
Newton-Conover travels to St. Stephens (0-2) next week. The Indians lost on the road, 46-7, to Bunker Hill. Both teams will be seeking their first victories of the season under new head coaches.
Hickory goes for its second win in a row when it hosts another Catawba Valley 2A team in Maiden (1-1), who won 28-7 against North Lincoln on Friday.