With a 14-14 tie at halftime and a first half when Hickory was its “own worst enemy,” the Red Tornadoes needed a special second half to keep playoff hopes alive.
According Hickory quarterback Kyle Johnson, it was “gut check time.”
“At halftime, we knew it was a close game, so we had to come out here and finish,” Johnson said. “It was something we hadn’t done all year, and we finally did it.”
Hickory scored three second-half touchdowns, including 14 unanswered points in a 77-second span in the fourth quarter to seal a 35-21 win over rival St. Stephens.
“We had a much better second half than we did the first,” Hickory head coach John Worley said, adding that in the first half the Tornadoes “were our own worst enemy.”
“Our kids fought back and tied the score, and we made one mistake on a punt, but other than that we played much better in the second half. We’re hoping this gives us some confidence.”
With the score tied at 21 in the fourth quarter, Johnson squeezed three yards on a quarterback sneak to cap a 13-play 74 yard drive and give the Tornadoes a seven-point lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Hickory’s Abdul Alexander recovered an Indians fumble, and four plays later the Tornadoes cashed it in. T.J. Wimbush rushed one yard to score and end a 20-yard drive that gave Hickory a 35-21 lead and seal the victory.
With the win, the Red Tornadoes all but secured a playoff spot.
“We felt like we could win out a long time ago. It has been a while, and we played a tough schedule and have had a lot of injuries and adversity,” Worley said, “but I am not worried about the playoffs right now. I am worried about Watauga.”
The Indians’ loss closes the playoff picture for St. Stephens on a night when the team celebrated its seniors.
“Hats off to Hickory. They played really well, and we kind of struggled a little bit in the second half,” said St. Stephens coach Fred Whalen, adding that the team’s seniors are “a small group of kids, but hard-working kids. Tanner Miller has been a terrific leader for us, and we will definitely miss him next year. We’re going to miss (Franklin Jefferies). He is just everywhere. They seem to just keep running the ball away from him, and that seems to be a trend everywhere we go.”
In the early going, the game was all St. Stephens. The Indians took the opening kickoff and marched 79 yards in six plays. Dyson Littlejohn’s 1-yard run and Cody Solesbee’s PAT gave the home-standing Indians a 7-0 lead.
Hickory lost two fumbles on its first two possessions of the night. On the Tornadoes’ first play, running back T.J. Wimbush fumbled. St. Stephens Ian Martin recovered the loose ball, but the Hickory defense forced a punt.
On Hickory’s second drive, Johnson tripped and couldn’t make a clean hand-off to his running back. Again the ball hit the ground, and St. Stephens recovered.
Seven plays and 52 yards later Littlejohn scored his second touchdown of the night on a three-yard run that extended the Indians lead to 14-0.
However, just as quickly as Hickory lost possessions early, they bounced back and scored. On the first play of its third possession Hickory’s Jordan Lockhart rushed 74 yards for a score.James Mitchell’s PAT made it 14-7.
Hickory’s defense stiffened and after forcing an Indians punt, the Tornadoes’ Stephen Davenport mustered a 58-yard punt return. Hickory marched to the two-yard line, where the Indian defense, led by Jefferies, recorded a huge fourth-down stop.
Pinned deep in their half of the field, the Indians quickly punted again and Hickory was back in business. Johnson connected with Jordan Walls-Davis tip-toeing the sideline on a 27-yard completion. The next play, Shaquan Reid scored on a 2-yard run, and the PAT tied the game at 14-14 going into halftime.
That’s when Worley challenged his men.
After a short Indians kickoff, Hickory marched 57 yards in five plays, and Reid scored his second touchdown on a 15-yard run. Reid rushed 16 times for 119 yards in the contest and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in the third quarter.
St. Stephens responded by engineering their own drive, with a little help from a pass interference penalty against Hickory. The Indians went on the warpath, but after a 38-yard field goal attempt by Solesbee was short, Hickory got the ball back and scored two quick touchdowns to seal the win.
“Our all out effort was great. We have been needing this win this whole year,” said Johnson. “We had to come out here and finish and we finally did.”
A Hickory miscue on a punt almost allowed the Indians a chance for a comeback. A high snap sailed over punter Michael Payne’s head and St. Stephens’ Daniel Icenhour recovered it in the endzone to score.
It wasn’t enough.
Johnson finished with one score and 21 yards rushing, as well as 89 yards passing on six completions. On the ground the Tornadoes amassed more than 380 yards, with Reid and Lockhart leading the way. Lockhart finished with 149 yards on seven carries. Wimbush added 86 yards on 17 attempts.
Tanner Miller led the Indians with 171 yards on 11 completions in 23 attempts, as well as 72 yards rushing on 13 carries. Jeff Ellis caught four passes for 87 yards.
Hickory next hosts Watauga, while St. Stephens has a bye.