By DOUG EADS, CJ Correspondent
It’s an old cliché but it’s so true — “Don’t count your ‘chickens’ until they hatch”.
That phrase was never more apparent than on Thursday night at North Laurel High School, as the Jaguars welcomed in the Pulaski County Maroons on the opening night of London’s annual Chicken Festival.
With just over eight minutes left in the third quarter of play, the homestanding Jags led Pulaski County 21-0 in a pivotal district contest for both clubs, leaving the Maroons for dead.
At that juncture, somebody forgot to tell Johnny Hines’ young club they were supposed to lose this football game in a hostile environment on the road.
The Maroons got fourth quarter touchdown runs from quarterback Riley Hall and Tyler Goins, and a fumble return on a kickoff for yet another score by Trent Fiene, enabling the Maroons to roar all the way back from the dead to post a heart-pounding and thrilling, 28-21 victory over the Jags.
“Tonight is a prime example of what I love about our team,” pointed out Hines after the game. “They just keep battling back, and they’re never going to give up.”
“They’ve got all of the intangibles that as a coach you love to see from your kids,” added a very jubilant PC head coach. “They’re just never going to quit — even when we got down 21-0 they just kept hanging in there and there was no panic. They knew they weren’t playing well, and that if we started executing, we could come back and win this thing, and we did just that. I’m very proud of them.”
As far as starts to a football game goes, the Maroons could have hardly had any worse start than the one they got off to on Thursday night.
On the first play from scrimmage, North Laurel’s Michael Nelson threw a 65-yard bomb to Cole Lewis for a touchdown, and with only nine seconds gone by in the contest, Hines and crew found themselves down by a 7-0 margin.
After that initial punch in the mouth by the Jags, the Maroons tried to respond.
Quarterback Riley Hall methodically led PC down the field, and after a 27-yard pass to Alec Wooldridge, the Maroons had the ball first and goal from the North Laurel one-yard line.
However, PC inserted its ‘heavy package’ into the game, and on back to back snaps, quarterback Aaron Smith fumbled twice, recovering both miscues.
A five-yard penalty on the Maroons eventually set up a fourth and goal from the Jags’ 4-yard line.
Hall threw an incomplete pass on fourth and goal, meaning the Maroons had wasted a golden opportunity to knot things up at 7-7.
Compounding matters for Hines’ club, North took over on downs, and immediately went 96 yards for a score — culminating on Nelson’s 79-yard TD run that extended the lead to 14-0 in favor of the Jags.
PC then lost two fumbles over the remainder of the first quarter, making for a very frustrating beginning to a crucial district contest for the Maroons.
“Honestly, even though we were down 14-0 at halftime, I really wasn’t that frustrated,” pointed out a very candid coach Hines.
“What I said to the kids at the half was that North Laurel had played a great first half and we had played an awful first half,” Hines continued. “I told them we had taken North’s best shot and we were only down 14. To me, that was a positive that we could get back in it. They had played about as well as they could play in that opening half, and we had played about as worse as we could play, and we were still in the game.”
After a Tyler Goins fumble — PC’s third lost fumble of the night — inside the first minute of the second half, North Laurel went up by three scores, thanks to a Nelson 2-yard TD run with 8:20 remaining in the third period.
At that juncture, the Jaguars were cruising over PC by a 21-0 count.
Did North Laurel count its chickens a little too early?
Whether the Jags thought this one was over or not, the one thing that was painfully obvious to the home folks was the fact that PC was not going to go away quietly.
Caleb Cox got the Maroons on the scoreboard finally, with his 4-yard touchdown run with 4:50 left in the third stanza, trimming the deficit to 21-7 at that juncture.
Early in the final stanza, Riley Hall called his own number and raced down the left sideline for a 31-yard scamper for another score with 10:43 remaining in the contest.
All of a sudden, thanks to Derek Burgett’s PAT, PC was incredibly back to within one score of the Jaguars, trailing North Laurel 21-14.
After holding the Jaguars to consecutive three and outs, the Maroons got the ball back with 3:46 left in the contest at the North Laurel 49-yard line.
A few plays later, Goins atoned for his earlier fumble with a hard-fought, 3-yard run with 1:52 left in regulation, cutting the deficit to 21-20.
At that point of the contest, with no hesitation whatsoever, Hines elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win.
“We were going to go for two all the way — no questions asked — and it had nothing to do at all with (Derek) Burgett,” said Hines.
“Derek’s been great all year long on extra points — he’s almost automatic,” remarked the Maroons head coach. “There were about two or three things that led to my decision. First of all, we always have a two-point play ready, one that we’ve practiced all week. So, we were a little bit prepared in that sense. The second thing is that playing a power-running team like North Laurel really didn’t favor us for an overtime. But the over-riding factor for my decision was this — in my career as a head coach, we’ve been in five overtime games and we’ve lost four of them. We won over South Laurel in ‘06 by kicking an extra point and won that game 61-60. We’ve lost every other overtime game that we’ve played in, and I just don’t like overtime. Win or lose, we were going for two, but we felt like we had the right play ready, and as things turned out it worked out for us.”
After a timeout following Goins’ TD run, the Maroons did indeed go for two, and converted when Hall hit a wide open Goins in the back of the end zone, giving PC a 22-21 lead.
However, the Maroons were far from finished.
On the ensuing kickoff, Lewis fumbled the ball thanks to a massive hit from Cox, and PC’s Trent Fiene scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone from five yards out, giving PC the 28-21 win.
“I’m proud of our entire unit — offense and defense — and our coaches did a great job of getting us ready this week,” Hines said.
“This was a team win and I’m so very proud of everybody on our team,” continued the PC coach. “Even down 21-0, nobody panicked. I hear this phrase all the time and we repeat it to our kids all the time, ‘It’s a long game’. We don’t get tore up over what just happened, good or bad. It’s a long game and we fight to play the next play. Our kids never quit, this team in never going to quit, and that’s what I love about them. And, young or not, they grew up a lot tonight by overcoming a ton of adversity on the road by winning a huge district contest. I’m so very proud of them.”
With the comeback win over North, Pulaski County moved to 4-2 on the season and to 2-0 in district play, and gained sole possession of first place inside Class 5A, District 7.
The Maroons will be back on the road next Friday night, facing All-State candidate Damien Harris and the Madison Southern Eagles in an attempt to move to 3-0 against district opponents.
Madison Southern had a chance to tie the Maroons in the district standings by going to 2-0 in league play, as the Eagles played at Lincoln County last night.
PC — 0 0 7 21 — 28
NL — 14 0 7 0 — 21
NL — Lewis 65 pass from Nelson (Kennedy kick)
NL — Nelson 79 run (Kennedy kick)
NL — Nelson 2 run (Kennedy kick)
PC — Cox 4 run (Burgett kick)
PC — R. Hall 31 run (Burgett kick)
PC — Goins 3 run (R. Hall conv. pass to Goins)
PC — Fiene 5 fumble return (Kick failed)
RUSHING — (PC) R. Hall 9-87 TD, Goins 9-54 TD, Cox 8-36 TD, Wooldridge 3-34. (NL) Nelson 15-111 2 TD, Blair 19-84.
PASSING — (PC) R. Hall 15-21 130. (NL) Nelson 1-3 65 TD.
RECEIVING — (PC) Goins 4-17, Smith 3-48, A. Hall 3-24, Wooldridge 1-27. (NL) Lewis 1-65 TD.