Hixson coach Jason Fitzgerald is probably really thankful that high school football games have two halves.
It was a game of two halves Friday night at Anthony Martino Field as the Wildcats watched the Brainerd Panthers pile up more than 300 yards in the opening two quarters to build a 30-20 lead at the break.
The final two quarters belonged to the Wildcats as they inched closer to a playoff berth with 20 unanswered points to win, 40-30, and breaking a six-game losing streak against Brainerd.
"You guys are killing me," Fitzgerald said to a happy group of Hixson players, cheerleaders, parents and other Wildcat supporters who gathered on the the field for post-game comments and prayer.
"I think we may have clinched a playoff spot, but we aren't finished as we have a big game next week here against Central," he continued.
Actually, it was a brutal halftime talk by Fitzgerald that might have played a key role.
He wasn't a happy fellow by any stretch after watching his defense give up two Brainerd touchdowns in the last two minutes.
It was one thing to watch the Panthers take a 24-20 lead on a beautifully-executed 21-yard pass from quarterback Sam Caffey to a wide-open Kaylen Stewart with 1:44 left in the second quarter, but the veteran coach was about beside himself when Caffey connected with Stewart again from the 11 as the half ended.
"We challenged their manhood at the half. I don't have any explanation for why we start out so slow, but we simplified some things in the second half and we played a whole lot better, especially on defense.
"Somehow we survived and did what we had to do to win, but if Brainerd had a few more players, who knows what might have happened," Fitzgerald added.
Fatigue did seem to play a big role in Brainerd's effort. While things were clicking pretty well on both sides of the ball in the first half, the Panthers started running out of gas in the final 24 minutes as the Wildcats came back.
"We were climbing the mountain and playing pretty well in the first half, but we just ran out of gas at the end. We have some pretty good athletes, but our lack of players really hurts in a game like this," said Brainerd coach Stanley Jackson.
Hixson drew first blood in the first quarter when quarter Gill Brown found a streaking Allante Novene on a 46-yard pass play with 7:32 to play.
Brainerd came right back and took an 8-7 lead less than two minutes later.
Caffey found Stewart on a big 27-yard gainer after a 41-yard kickoff return by Jacoby Ramsey put the Panthers in great field position. Caffey then scored on a keeper from the 3 before Christopher Davis added the two-point conversion run.
K.C. Shelton put the Wildcats back on top with a 25-yard return on an interception with 4:01 left in the first.
The lead changed hands two more times early in the second quarter, first when Brainerd's William Womack scored on a 14-yard run on the first play of the stanza and the second when Hixson's Trey Coleman gave the Wildcats a 20-16 lead with a 13-yard run 90 seconds later.
Brainerd then scored those last two touchdowns in the last two minutes, but they didn't score again as Hixson came back strong in the second half.
Brown scored on a keeper from the 2 with 4:19 left in the third quarter to draw Hixson to within 30-26. Then with 10:52 left in the game, Coleman gave his team the lead for good on a TD run from the 7.
Then to add a little insurance, Hixson took advantage of an interception by Novene with just over six minutes remaining to march 70 yards in 10 plays with Coleman getting the final yard for the TD.
Brainerd finished with impressive stats that included 396 total yards and 22 first downs. It was a balanced attack with 222 coming on the ground and another 174 through the air where Caffey completed 13 of 19 passes, including eight passes to Stewart for 140 yards.
Caffey himself had 93 yards rushing in the first half when the Panthers had 185 yards on the ground. The scrappy junior ended up as the leading rusher with 87 yards on a dozen trips after the Hixson defense limited him to a negative six yards on three carries in the second half.
Davis added 58 yards on 16 trips while Womack finished with 36 yards on eight carries.
While Brainerd had 302 yards in the first half, the Panthers were limited to just 94 in the final 24 minutes.
Hixson's Isaiah Robinson topped both teams with 167 yards on 20 carries, including 100 yards in the second half when the Wildcats piled up 129 of their 218 rushing yards.
Coleman finished with 39 yards on 10 attempts and three touchdowns.
Brown completed three passes for 70 yards, including the 46-yarder to Novene.
Brainerd also won the battle of first downs, 22-16.
While Hixson hosts Central next Friday, Brainerd will be on the road again at East Ridge.
BRAINERD 8 22 0 0 -- 30
HIXSON 14 6 6 14 -- 40
HIX -- Allante Novene 46 pass from Gill Brown (J.R. Walker kick), 7:32 left in first;
BRAIN -- Sam Caffey 1 run (Christopher Davis run), 5:56 left in first;
HIX -- K.C. Shelton 25 interception return (Walker kick), 4:01 left in first;
BRAIN -- William Womack 14 run (Caffey run), 11:50 left in second;
HIX -- Trey Coleman 13 run (run failed), 10:11 left in second;
BRAIN -- Kaylen Stewart 21 pass from Caffey (Davis run), 1:44 left in second;
BRAIN -- Stewart 11 pass from Caffey (run failed), 0:00 left in second;
HIX -- Brown 2 run (kick failed), 4:19 left in third;
HIX -- Coleman 7 run (Walker kick), 10:52 left in fourth;
HIX -- Coleman 1 run (Walker kick), 1:21 left in fourth.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)