A fourth-quarter goal-line stand worthy of offseason clinic study and a nail-in-the-coffin touchdown gallop one play later gave East Hamilton the one-two knockout punch Friday night and the once-beaten Hurricanes decked Red Bank, 24-6, at Red Bank Community Stadium to capture the District 6-AA championship.
East Hamilton, ranked No. 3 by murphyfair.com, now has won seven straight games and is four points shy of being undefeated – the Hurricanes lost to Ooltewah, 31-28, on Aug. 24.
The Hurricanes (8-1), ranked No. 3 by murphyfair.com, are 6-0 in district play with one game at Howard remaining on their regular-season schedule. At 5-1, Hixson is the only team that could match East Hamilton’s record – and that could only happen if the Hurricanes lost to Howard (2-7) and the Wildcats beat Central (2-7) next week.
However, East Hamilton torched Hixson, 49-0, on Oct. 5 and owns the tiebreaker over the Wildcats. With Friday’s 40-30 win over Brainerd, Hixson locked up the district’s second spot and a playoff berth.
So, let the Hurricanes’ trophy engraving begin.
“That’s been our goal from the beginning,” said senior tailback Logan Jackson, who rushed for 113 yards on 16 carries, despite suffering a slight head injury midway through the second quarter. “We knew Red Bank would take it to us, but we had a strong fourth quarter and got the job done.”
East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood was more than a little hesitant to talk about a district championship.
“It’s not over,” said Gatewood, who is 17-23 in four seasons with the Hurricanes, but 14-6 in the past two years. “We’ll know more about that after next week. It’s a 10-game schedule.”
The outcome of Friday’s hard-fought game was in doubt until the final six minutes.
East Hamilton, a fourth-year program that lost its first two games to Red Bank by a combined score of 95-21, built a 14-6 lead on Jackson’s 33-yard run and a 5-yard pass from Hunter Moore to Quinn Griffith.
Those scores sandwiched Red Bank quarterback Hagen Wilkey’s 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
“I’m really proud of our players,” Lions coach E.K. Slaughter said. “Man-for-man they outmatched us at just about every position, but our kids played right with them. What people might overlook about us is that Red Bank has a good football program, with a lot of tradition and pride.”
After forcing a Hurricanes punt, the Lions (6-3, 4-2) steadily marched from their own 35 to East Hamilton’s 4. But on fourth-and-goal, Wilkey’s pass into the end zone fell harmlessly to the ground. A pass interference penalty against the Hurricanes, however, gave Red Bank a first down at the 2.
Before the next snap, Red Bank was penalized 5 yards back to the 7.
Wilkey, who led all rushers with 128 yards on 22 carries, gained 4 yards to the 3. Wilkey was stopped for no gain. Darrius Akridge lost 2 yards on third down when East Hamilton’s Harrison Warren shot the gap to stone him.
On fourth down, Red Bank lined up for a 22-yard field goal. The Lions were penalized for delay of game. Facing a 27-yard field goal, place-kicker Christian Velazquez never got a chance to kick. A high center snap resulted in a 16-yard loss and East Hamilton took over at its own 26.
“That was huge and our kids really bowed their necks,” Gatewood said. “That’s one of the biggest goal-line stands in our four years.”
Warren echoed Gatewood’s remarks on the significance of the rock-ribbed defensive effort.
“We had to get a stop,” the 210-pound senior linebacker said. “The pass interference call was just a little more adversity, but we’ve been good about overcoming adversity this season.”
Slaughter’s call for the field goal burned at his gut.
“That was a really hard decision,” he said. “We had already missed an extra point and I don’t like getting that close to the goal line and not going for a touchdown. But, it is what it is.”
Starting on first-and-goal from the 10, Red Bank had seven plays – the red zone opportunity, of course, was kept alive with the pass interference penalty – and failed to score.
Even harder for the Lions to swallow is what East Hamilton, which has now won two in a row from the Lions, did immediately after the failed field-goal try.
Lining up in East Hamilton’s version of the wildcat, 165-pound sophomore Matt Milita, who normally lines up at tailback when he’s in the game, took a shotgun snap and roared 74 yards for a touchdown to stretch the Hurricanes’ lead to 21-6 with 6:01 left in the game.
If Red Bank’s back wasn’t broken then, it was within a few seconds of snapping.
“This is the first time we’ve run that in a game,” said Milita, who had rushed for just 23 times for 162 yards before Friday’s game. “We’ve been practicing it for about five weeks. I was ready and comfortable with it and ran it to perfection.
“When you see an opening like that, that’s when you get the most excited. I didn’t want to get caught from behind so I put on burners.”
Milita raced virtually untouched to the end zone, dashing any hopes Red Bank had of pulling off a huge upset.
“Our guys came to the sideline and were saying we got mixed up on defense,” said Wilkey, who completed 10-of-20 passes for 112 yards, with one interception. “Our plan was to stop Logan Jackson, take him away, and make them try to beat us through the air. We didn’t think they could do that. I think we’ll see them again (in the playoffs) and we can beat them.”
On Red Bank’s second offensive play after Milita’s touchdown, Wilkey completed a short pass to Micheal Robinson, who, when tackled hard, fumbled and the Hurricanes’ Martez Durrah, a sophomore safety, recovered at the Lions’ 24.
On fourth down, East Hamilton’s Cameron Carter kicked a 30-yard field goal to provide the final 24-6 margin of victory with 2:49 left in the game.
In reality, the Hurricanes were forced to beat the Lions without being able to utilize Jackson much in the second half. Jackson was tackled hard, while losing his footing, with 7:06 left in the second quarter after rushing for 87 yards on nine carries up to that point.
He was a bit wobbly while being helped to the sideline.
Jackson, who went into the game with 1,307 rushing yards and 20, rushed seven times after halftime, gaining 34 yards.
“I’m OK,” Jackson said. “I think they were just trying to protect me for the playoffs.”
East Hamilton 7 7 0 10 – 24
Red Bank 6 0 0 6 – 6
EH – Logan Jackson 33 run (Cameron Carter kick), 7:33
RB – Hagen Wilkey 4 run (kick failed), 3:26
EH – Quinn Griffith 5 pass from Hunter Moore (Carter kick), 11:28
EH – Matt Milita 74 run (Carter kick), 6:01
EH – FG Carter 30, 2:49
First Downs 11 17
Rushes-Yds. 29-203 40-138
Passing Yds. 80 112
Com.-Att.-Int. 8-12-0 10-20-1
Total Offense 283 250
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Punts.-Avg. 4-32.0 3-28.3
Penalties-Yds. 10-82 3-32
RUSHING — East Hamilton: Logan Jackson 16-113, Matt Milita 4-82, Dallas Hammond 4-12, Cody Knox 1-12, Team 2-minus 2; Hunter Moore 3-minus 14; Red Bank: Hagen Wilkey 22-128, Darrius Akridge 13-9, Christian Velazquez 1-10, Micheal Robinson 2-8, Team 2-minus 17.
PASSING — East Hamilton: Moore 8-12-0 80; Red Bank: Wilkey 10-20-1 112.
RECEIVING — East Hamilton: Hammond 2-21, Tony Francois 1-20, Hunter Parker 2-16, Jackson 1-14, Quinn Griffith 1-5, Bailey Lenoir 1-4; Red Bank: Robinson 5-78, Chris Tucker 3-25, Quan Springs 2-9.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)