By Bryan Davis
The Hernando Tigers (7-5; 4-3) had to beat the West Point Green Wave (10-1; 7-0) on Friday night, in order to get into the playoffs. The Tigers felt good going into the half, trailing 7-0 to the red hot Wave, but hopes of a comeback were crushed by a stellar effort from LaKenderic Thomas in the second half.
West Point finished the night on top 21-14, sending Hernando home with its third district loss.
“They’re a good football team,” said West Point head coach Chris Chambless. “We knew they were going to give us their A-game and their best shot tonight.”
The Green Wave scored late in the first quarter, but they would not get into the end zone again until the fourth. This made for a tight and tense battle for most of the game.
“We knew is was hostile territory coming in,” Chambless said. “We knew were were going to get their best shot times 10.”
The Tigers battled hard, but when it came to the clutch, it was the Green Wave defense that shined in the first half. West Point nixed a pair of fourth down conversion attempts, once inside the 10 yard line, to keep Hernando off the scoreboard.
“We persevered,” Chambless said. “We work on things like that, getting off the field, even when they make long drives on us. We do what we have to do to keep them out of the end zone. We didn’t do that a couple of times late, but we’re going to have to do stuff like that in the playoffs to keep going.”
The Tigers took the kickoff to start the game, driving for seven plays, but they only made it 21 yards before they were forced to punt it to the Green Wave offense.
The drive for the Green Wave consumed most of the clock for the first quarter, and it culminated into the half’s lone touchdown.
West Point went 15 plays and 92 yards, getting help from Tez Pulliam and quarterback Justin Cox. It was Thomas, however, who eventually took the ball 15 yards into the end zone for his team’s first touchdown. The PAT gave West Point the 7-0 lead, with 2:55 to go in the opening period.
The Tigers knew they could not let the game slip away early. They showed a willingness to take risks, but those chances did not turn into points.
Instead of punting, and ceding a three-and-out drive, Hernando decided to chance a one-yard rush on fourth down. Quarter back Kedric Merriweather made it about six inches before the Green Wave defensive front stalled he and the football, turning the ball back over to West Point.
The Wave would go three-and-out on this drive, and they gave the ball back to Hernando, who put together its best drive of the first half.
The 13-play possession took the Tigers deep into Green Wave territory. On first and goal, Hernando was close enough to spit across the goal line, but on three consecutive plays, they were driven back, eventually past the 10 yard line.
On fourth down, Hernando would not chance a field goal, opting again to send Merriweather toward the end zone for a chance to tie. the quarterback took the snap, ran around to the outside to the Green Wave sideline, only to be knocked out by a pair of defenders at the three, killing an 81-yard drive.
West Point would not score again in the half, but they would eat enough of the clock to send it to the locker rooms with the Green Wave in control.
“We made too many mistakes, and kept them in the ball game,” Chambless said. “That’s something we’re not going to be able to do in the playoffs. In the playoffs, you’re one and done. You can’t afford to make mistakes. That’s one thing we’re going to have to work on in practice, is minimizing mistakes.”
The temperatures had dropped by the time the two squads came back to the field, but Thomas and the Green Wave offense were just getting warmed up.
The third quarter was a back-and-forth battle between the defenses, as each team was held from scoring, resulting in four punts in almost 12 minutes of play.
The Green Wave got the ball back late in the third, and they would carry the possession over into the fourth quarter, eventually scoring.
This was a 13-play drive that saw Thomas break out and dominate. On a second and goal, from the one yard line, the senior would muscle his way into the end zone for the game’s second score. A blocked PAT left it a 13-0 Green Wave lead, with 9:42 to play in the game.
Hernando’s next drive would amount to another three-and-out. Unlike the first half, the Tigers were unwilling to chance a fourth down conversion, opting to punt the ball away, giving Thomas another shot at a score.
The running back did not disappoint, as he took the ball on the 18 yard line, on the first play of the drive, all the way to the end zone for an 82 yard touchdown run. A two-point conversion gave the Green Wave a 21-0 lead, with 7:38 to play in the game.
Hernando would respond for the first time all afternoon, as Merriweather connected for a 25 yard pass to Travis McMahan to give his team six points. A failed PAT left it 21-6 , with less than five minutes to play.
The Green Wave would go three-and-out on their next drive, punting the ball back to Herando. It all appeared to be over for the Tigers when Dequinten Spraggins picked off a Merriweather pass, but the Tigers were able to force a fumble at midfield and recovered the loose ball for new life.
Merriweather would eventually connect with McMahan for a 24 yard touchdown pass, but it was thrown at the buzzer. The team’s two-point conversion made it 21-14, but it was the final play of regulation, sending the Green Wave to the playoffs with the momentum of an eight-game winning streak.
Thomas finished the game with 262 rushing yards on 26 carries. He scored all three Green Wave touchdowns.
The Green Wave will play Jackson Provine, at home, next Friday night to start the playoffs. The Rams will come in with a 5-6 overall record.