Eagles hold on for key win over Straughn
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
They had a quick strike at the start, a clutch defensive play with a little luck at the end and plenty of heart in between.
After the last second ticked off the scoreboard, W.S. Neal Blue Eagles coach Shane Smothers and his team were able to breathe a big sigh of relief after a 21-13 road victory over the Straughn Tigers Friday.
"We knew the team that had the biggest heart would win this game. I've got a lot of respect for Straughn because they have a very good team. Somehow, our players found a way to win," Smothers said.
While W.S. Neal's Region 1 championship hopes evaporated when Pike County beat T.R. Miller 27-21 Friday, the Blue Eagles' sixth straight win kept them in contention for a number two seed and a first-round home game in the playoffs.
That part of the equation will be answered next Friday when the Blue Eagles host T.R. Miller at 7:30 p.m. The winner of that game will get the region's number two seed and the home playoff game that goes with it. The loser will get the number three seed and a road assignment in the opening round.
"We weren't concerned with the Pike County-T.R. Miller game. There were just too many things that had to happen in order for us to win the region," Smothers said. "We were only concerned with the things we could control."
Straughn (4-2 in region play and 6-2 overall) entered Friday's game in the exact same position as W.S. Neal. The Tigers' loss snapped a five-game winning streak and locked Straughn into the fourth seed and a road game for the first round of the playoffs.
The Blue Eagles could not have asked for a better start to Friday's game. On the first play from scrimmage, Alphonso Gross went up the middle, cut right and dashed down the sideline for a 76-yard touchdown. Spencer Williamson's point after kick made it 7-0 just 19 seconds into the game.
After Gross' stunning run, the W.S. Neal offense ran into problems for the rest of the first half. The Blue Eagles generated only 49 more yards and 37 of them came on a pass from Justin Smith to Mario Daniel on the first play of the second quarter.
Straughn was never able to overcome the quick strike by Gross. It had a chance with 1:12 left in the first quarter when Al Feeney muscled his way for a one-yard touchdown run. However, Garrett Windham's point after kick sailed wide right and that kept W.S. Neal ahead 7-6.
While the Blue Eagles' offense provided a quick start to the first half, it was W.S. Neal's defense that did the honors at the start of the second half.
Two plays into the third quarter, Roc Herbert intercepted a pass by Justin Bacewell and ran it back 34 yards for a touchdown. It was Herbert's fourth defensive touchdown in the last four weeks. Williamson's PAT kick extended the lead to 14-6 with just 56 seconds of the quarter expired.
A nine-play, 91 yard drive by the Blue Eagles that carried over into the fourth quarter opened up even more breathing room. The key play was a 61-yard run by Gross.
It was also Gross who finished the drive off with a one-yard run on a fourth and goal situation with 9:55 left in the game. Williamson's PAT kick made it 21-6.
Gross had another huge game for W.S. Neal with 222 yards rushing on 21 carries. That figure included 13 rushes for 133 yards in the second half.
"Our offensive line did a lot better job in the second half of giving Alphonso some room to run," Smothers said.
Straughn was able to get back in the game on its next series, as it drove 52 yards on nine plays in just under four minutes. Feeney scored his second touchdown of the game on a four-yard run with six minutes left. Windham converted the PAT kick to slice the Blue Eagles' lead to 21-13.
W.S. Neal ate up most of the remaining clock with a 12-play, 73-yard march. Smothers and the Blue Eagles faced a tough decision when they had a fourth down and 12 from the Straughn 18 with just 30 seconds left.
The Blue Eagles declined both a field goal opportunity and a conservative run play. Instead W.S. Neal went to the air and Smith was intercepted by Feeney. Feeney returned the ball 28 yards to the Tigers' 35-yard line with 22 seconds left.
"It was just a gut call my part. Feeney was possibly one blocker away from maybe going all the way," Smothers said.
After an incompletion, Bracewell hit Malcomb Jones on a 15-yard pass that took the ball to midfield with just seven seconds left. That gave the Tigers a final chance at a Hail Mary and it almost worked.
Bracewell scrambled away from a couple of W.S. Neal linemen and hurled the ball to the right corner of the endzone. Marcus Folmar was in the right position to bat the ball away, but the deflection went into and then out of the hands of Straughn receiver Dawanis Samuel.
"Marcus was in perfect position, but you never know about those deflections. Fortunately, their receiver couldn't make the play," Smothers said.
W.S. Neal 7 0 7 7 – 21
Straughn 6 0 0 7 – 13
W.S. NEAL- Gross 76 yard run (Williamson kick)
STRAUGHN- A. Feeney 1 yard run (kick failed)
W.S. NEAL- Herbert 34 yard run (Williamson kick)
W.S. NEAL- Gross 1 yard run (Williamson kick)
STRAUGHN- A. Feeney 4 yard run (Windahm kick)
First downs: W.S. Neal 8, Straughn 13
Third down conversions: W.S. Neal 2-7, Straughn 2-7
Fourth down conversions: W.S. Neal 1-2, Straughn 2-2
Total yards: W.S. Neal 278 (241 rushing, 37 passing); Straughn 221 (123 rushing, 98 passing)
Individual rushing: W.S. Neal- Gross 21-222 2TD, Bailey 4-9, Smith 8-7, Burch 3-3; Straughn- Hobbs 22-75, Bracewell 10-30, Samuel 2-13, A. Feeney 4-4 2TD, Straughn 1-1
Individual passing: W.S. Neal- Smith 1-5-37 3INT; Straughn- Bracewell 6-11-98 1INT
Individual receiving: W.S. Neal- Daniel 1-37; Straughn- Straughn 3-62, Jones 1-15, A. Feeney 1-11, Samuel 1-10
Individual punting: W.S. Neal- Herbert 3-113, 37.7 avg.; Straughn- McVay 4-164, 41.0 avg.
Penalties: W.S. Neal- 8-53, Straughn 3-15