E.K. Slaughter knows there's still plenty of room for improvement, but he was happier than a little kid at Christmas after claiming his first victory as the head coach of the Red Bank Lions Friday night.
Granted, it wasn't pretty and it certainly didn't earn many style points for either team, but the Lions defeated the East Ridge Pioneers by a 19-7 final for their first win of the season and first victory in District 6-AA.
"A win is a win is a win," Slaughter told his players as they gathered for a post-game talk in the middle of Tom Weathers Field.
"If we can learn how to not beat ourselves, we have a chance to be a pretty good football team. This was a tough win to eek out as there were a lot of 'what ifs' on both sides.
"I thought we improved a lot on defense. We gave up some big plays, but we also made some big stops at critical moments. We're still young in spots, but we're getting there.
"In no shape, form or fashion am I pleased with the way we played as it was a very ugly game, but I'm extremely thankful to get the win," Slaughter added.
After an exchange of punts to start the game, Red Bank scored first when quarterback Hagen Wilkey hooked up with Micheal Robinson for an 18-yard touchdown pass across the middle and the Lions had a 7-0 lead following a point-after kick by Christian Velazquez with 7:07 remaining in the opening quarter.
Wilkey fumbled on Red Bank's next possession and C.J. Baker recovered for the Pioneers at the Red Bank 31.
Seven plays later, East Ridge knotted the score when JoJo Tillery found Torrey Hughes on a curl route from the 5 and Tad Whitaker booted the extra point with 33 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Darrius Akridge put the Lions ahead to stay with a 16-yard touchdown run with 3:50 to play before halftime and the score was 13-7 at the break when the two-point run failed.
Red Bank had a chance to add to that first-half lead, but D'Quantis Jones intercepted a Wilkey pass at the 10 inside the final minute.
Wilkey scored the only touchdown in the second by either team when he zig-zagged his way into the end zone from the 5 with 3:32 remaining in the third stanza.
East Ridge got another interception early in the fourth quarter deep in Red Bank territory, but the Pioneers couldn't capitalize. Hughes made the pick at the Lion 18 and the Pioneers eventually got down to the 3, but a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
The Pioneers had one final chance to score as they moved down to the Red Bank 20 following a Lion punt, but four straight incompletions ended any chance of a comeback as the Lions were able to run out the clock from that point.
East Ridge coach Tracy Malone hated to lose, but he was proud of the effort from his kids.
"My guys played their hearts out, but our hat's off to Red Bank. We sort of lost this one ourselves as we had too many dropped passes and we couldn't hang on to at least two other possible interceptions.
"But we'll learn from it. I saw a lot of improvement from a week ago as these kids are getting better. It's a process," Malone concluded with a smile.
Red Bank finished with 357 total yards, including 149 on the ground and 208 through the air.
Akridge was the leading rusher with 78 yards on 15 carries while Wilkey added 43 yards on 10 attempts.
Wilkey completed 16 of 29 passes with Khalik Hudson gaining 71 yards on seven catches and Chris Tucker 65 more on four grabs.
Wilkey knows that better days are ahead as he's sure his team has more talent than they showed on Friday night.
"It was a sloppy win as we just killed ourselves on offense. I'm happy we won as we're 1-0 in the district. That's what matters," he suggested.
East Ridge finished with 155 total yards, including 46 on the ground and 109 through the air.
Tillery completed 14 of 29 passes with Hughes claiming five for 53 yards. Michael Knox added 30 more on three grabs.
EAST RIDGE 7 0 0 0 -- 7
RED BANK 7 6 6 0 -- 19
RB -- Micheal Robinson 18 pass from Hagen Wilkey (Christian Velazquez kick), 7:07 left in first;
ER -- Torrey Hughes 5 pass from JoJo Tillery (Tad Whitaker kick), :33.2 left in first;
RB -- Darrius Akridge 16 run (run failed), 3:50 left in second;
RB -- Wilkey 5 run (pass failed), 3:32 left in third.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)