To the surprise of no one, Ooltewah and East Hamilton played another close, thrilling, nail-biting high school football game on Friday.
Before a crowd of about 3,500 fans at James N. Monroe Stadium, East Hamilton’s Matt Milita caught a short pass and turned it into a scintillating 53-yard touchdown play with 16 seconds left, Cooper Lofton kicked four field goals and the Hurricanes beat Ooltewah, 26-19, in the second round of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Class 5A state playoffs.
“This feels great because it moves us to the next round,” said East Hamilton linebacker Austin Gatewood, who was credited with 10.5 tackles in the game. “It’s the next step in our journey.”
With the win No. 3 seed East Hamilton (10-2) advanced to the quarterfinals and will host No. 5-seeded Cleveland (9-3), which thumped top-seed Rhea County, 31-7. The Hurricanes reached the Class 4A quarterfinals in 2012 where they lost to Giles County, 22-16.
The Hurricanes, who beat Ooltewah for the first time in four meetings, and Blue Raiders are joined by Silverdale, Notre Dame, Hixson, Marion County and South Pittsburg as the Chattanooga area’s only teams still alive in the playoffs.
“This was a huge win for East Hamilton football,” said senior Tre Herndon, who has committed to Vanderbilt as a defensive back. “I think the whole school was here supporting us and we had some highs and lows, fought through adversity and had a great finish.”
East Hamilton, Ooltewah and Cleveland all compete in the rugged District 5-AAA and Friday’s outcome means another all-district matchup will occur again next week.
“The way the (playoff) system is set up,” Hurricanes coach Ted Gatewood said, “and we have a strong district, you’re going to see some people out of your own district (in the early rounds). It’s a shame it’s that way.”
This game followed the same script as the previous two meetings, which were decided by a total of five points – both narrow Ooltewah wins.
During the week, fans on the coachT.com website picked the Ooltewah-East Hamilton game as the toughest playoff game of the week to pick a winner. The Owls went into Friday night slightly favored by 50.3 percent. Six other teams in the 15 top games selected were favored by 90-plus percent to win.
The toughest winner to pick, besides the Owls and Hurricanes, was Blackman over Ravenwood by 72 percent. Blackman won, 47-14.
The Owls (9-3) led 19-16 after Rashaun Freeman scored on an 8-yard run with 45 seconds left in the third quarter, completing a rally from a 16-6 halftime deficit.
East Hamilton’s defense forced a punt and the Hurricanes drove to the Owls’ 6, but faced fourth down. Lofton then kicked his fourth field goal, a 22-yarder that tied the game at 19-19 with 7:28 left in the game.
Lofton, whose primary sport is soccer – he plays from the elite Chattanooga Futbol Club – and didn’t play in the first round because he was participating in a season-ending tournament. He was in rare football form Friday despite not having played American football until this season.
“Just about the whole football team knew I played soccer,” said Lofton, who also had field goals of 20, 30 and 26 yards and missed one from 40 in the third quarter. “They wanted me to come out and give it a shot and coach Gatewood gave me a chance. This feels great. There is nothing better than coming in here and getting a win against Ooltewah for the first time.”
Over the next few minutes, Ooltewah was forced to punt twice and the Hurricanes took over on their own 36 after the second kick with 1:51 on the clock.
After Milita, who rushed for 70 yards and snagged three passes for 59 yards, picked up a first down with a 6-yard run to the Hurricanes’ 47, he turned and caught Hunter Moore’s short toss in the left flat, darted down the sidelines, sidestepped two Ooltewah defenders near the 15 and then dashed into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
“We were just trying to make a play,” Milita said. “We dialed up a little play-action pass to me, I got open and it was me and two (Ooltewah) guys down there and I got loose and scored. This was a big game and with 16 or 17 seconds left that was a really big play.”
Said Ted Gatewood, “We were looking for something safe to get us down the field and hopefully allow us to throw one up in the end zone with the time we had. Hunter did a good job standing in there and squeezing (the pass) off and Matt was just phenomenal with his yards-after-catch.
“It was a great football game. Both teams left everything they had on the field.”
Ooltewah could do nothing with the time remaining and headed toward the locker room knowing its season was over.
“It’s tough,” the Owls’ senior wide receiver Mike Williams said. “We figured our defense could stop them or they would just run the ball and we’d go into overtime. But that was a great play by their guy (Milita).”
Bryan was as disappointed as his players with the loss, especially the Milita play.
“I thought we could get him on the ground,” said Bryan, who finished his first season with the Owls, “but we missed a couple tackles. Anytime you get in the playoffs after a good season and it ends, it’s hard on any program and any kid.”
On a cold, wet night and in a rematch of a down-to-the-wire thriller on Sept. 20 that the Owls pulled out 28-26, the game started out with a bang.
The Owls mustered 3 yards on its first possession only to have Herndon block a Joey Sealor punt and Austin Gatewood recover it at the Owls’ 7.
East Hamilton couldn’t reach the end zone, however, and Lofton kicked a 20-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead at the 9:29 mark of the opening quarter.
The Owls took the lead less than two minutes later when Edward Hayes caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Brody Binder, capping a 75-yard, four-play drive. Hayes had five catches for 100 yards.
Rashaun Freeman’s 45-yard gallop on third-and-one set up the touchdown play on which Herndon knocked the ball loose from behind while making the tackle, but the Owls’ Cadarrius Hubbard recovered the fumble.
The Owls’ offense bogged down under the weight of East Hamilton’s hard-hitting defense and self-inflicted mistakes.
“We couldn’t get any drives going because everything was third-and-14 or 15 because of penalties,” Bryan said. “We were killing ourselves. It’s hard to sustain anything like that. They did a good job on defense, but we certainly didn’t help ourselves any.”
In the second quarter, East Hamilton took control when Moore connected with Tony Francois, the team’s leading receiver, on a 29-yard touchdown play and Lofton kicked field goals of 22 and 30 yards.
The Hurricanes went to the locker room with a 16-6 lead.
Moore completed 15-of-29 passes for 232 yards and Francois caught four of them for 95 yards.
Ooltewah, which ran 47 plays compared to East Hamilton’s 68 and was held to less than 200 yards of total offense, went deep into the third quarter before picking up its third first down. That came on a Binder-to-Hayes 47-yard gainer to the Hurricanes’ 23.
Later on first-and-goal from the 6, Binder, who will sign a baseball scholarship to Troy on Tuesday, pitched to Hayes who ran to his right, stopped and lobbed a touchdown pass to Hayden Bradley that pulled Ooltewah within 16-13 with 1:10 left in the third quarter.
On East Hamilton’s next play, Moore – who was sacked nine times, Nick Putman and David Strickland each had three – was nailed by Tyler Palmgren to force a fumble and Tyler Reid recovered it at the Hurricanes’ 14. Moore left the field favoring his right knee.
“He’s fine, coach Gatewood said. “He’s just dinged a little bit. It’s a bruise.”
Two plays later Freeman scored on 5-yards out, place-kicker Laslo Toser missed his second extra-point attempt and the Owls, who finished with just five first downs, were up 19-16 with 43.8 seconds left in the third quarter.
“We were playing pretty good then,” Bryan said, “and I thought we were in pretty good shape.”
What the Owls didn’t know was Milita had one dazzling, jaw-dropping play left in him.
East Hamilton 3 13 0 10 – 26
Ooltewah 6 0 13 0 – 19
EHS – FG Cooper Lofton 20, 9:29
OHS – Edward Hayes 21 pass from Brody Binder (kick failed), 7:54
EHS – Tony Francois 29 pass from Hunter Moore (Lofton kick), 8:19
EHS – FG Lofton 22, 2:40
EHS – FG Lofton 30, 0:00
OHS – Hayden Bradley 6 pass from Hayes (Laslo Toser kick), 1:10
OHS – Rashaun Freeman 8 run (kick failed), 0:45
EHS – FG Lofton 26, 7:28
EHS – Matt Milita 53 pass from Hunter Moore (Lofton kick), 0:16
First Downs 14 5
Rushes-Yards 36-58 27-77
Passing Yards 236 111
Total Yards 68-294 47-188
Com.-Att.-Int. 16-32-0 11-25-0
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Punts.-Avg. 7-37.7 11-29.4
Penalties-Yds. 10-163 5-37
RUSHING — East Hamilton: Matt Milita 15-70, David Whiteside 8-9, Hunter Moore 13-minus 21; Ooltewah: Rashaun Freeman 11-67, Omari Kendrick 5-19, Brody Binder 6-minus 9.
PASSING — East Hamilton: Moore 15-29-0-232, Hunter Parker 1-1-0-4, Team 0-2-0-0; Ooltewah: Binder 10-24-0-105, Edward Hayes 1-1-0-6.
RECEIVING — East Hamilton: Tony Francois 4-95, Tre Herndon 4-21, Milita 3-59, DeShawn Thomas 2-25, Moore 2-7, Bailey Lenoir 1-29; Ooltewah: Hayes 5-100, Hayden Bradley 4-4, Cody Cramer 1-5, Freeman 1-2.
TACKLES (UA-A-TOT) – East Hamilton: Austin Gatewood 10-1-10.5, Zach Thomas 7-0-7, Quinn Griffith 2-1-2.5, Alonzo Francois 2-1-2.5; Ooltewah: David Strickland 10-1-10.5, Tyler Palmgren 10-1-10.5, Nick Putman 7-3-8.5, Jeremiah Jackson 8-0-8
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)