DRY RIDGE - Great Crossing High School's had a lot of firsts in its inaugural year.
It can add the first football victory, as the Warhawks secured a gritty 28-20 win Friday night over Grant County and earned a playoff berth.
"This feels good," said Coach Paul Rains, echoing his players, many of whom were shedding tears of joy. "The kids showed a lot of grit and rose to the challenge."
Great Crossing (1-8) jumped out to a 20-0 lead and looked to be riding the emotion to an easy victory, but the Braves (3-6) rode the legs of Nate Kaiser repeatedly to tie the game at 20 late in the third quarter.
The Warhawks’ offense trotted back on the field after the defensive unit stiffened and stopped Logan Sutherland on fourth down at the Great Crossing 38.
"I came out to the huddle and said we have to dig deep," said quarterback Kalib Perry.
And dig deep they did. Perry and Peyton Harris ran the option toss to perfection for an 11-yard gain. Caleb Griggs broke loose for a 22-yard scamper to set up the Warhawks at the Braves 25.
On second-and-15, perhaps the play of the night, Bryce Hearn hauled in Perry's pass for 21 yards and first goal at the 9. Four plays later, Perry darted in for the score, and Great Crossing tacked on two points for the 28-20 lead.
They had tried the same play twice, but the passes fell incomplete. In fact, that was the only completed pass for the Warhawks.
"That was a big catch by Bryce," Rains said.
"I had to catch it. I couldn't choke twice," Hearn said.
Added Perry, "When Bryce made that catch and we scored, that got us excited again."
Then it was up to the defense with four minutes left in the game. And that was no easy task after the early lead evaporated. Grant County went to a single-wing attack and used Kaiser for more than 40 carries on the night.
"They basically put in nine linemen, and (Kaiser) had real good vision and picked his paths," Rains said.
On third-and-7, Kaiser ran for 12 yards. Great Crossing looked to have Grant County stopped after Caleb Shively made a touchdown-saving tackle on Sutherland to force a fourth and 11.
Grant County got thanks to a horse collar tackle on fourth down. The Braves moved to the 15 with a fresh set of downs.
A holding penalty and a stop by Alex Stapleton set up another fourth down, where a flock of Warhawks, led by Trenton Allen, made the play and unleashed the celebration.
"Grit. It came down to grit," Allen said. "It came down to fight and who wanted it the most. That was a tough Grant County team."
The game got off to a great start for Great Crossing.
As usual for Grant County, they didn't punt all night and squib-kicked the ball, giving the Warhawks great field position. At midfield after recovering the onside kick, Kaspen Colbert burst through the hole for a 50-yard score just 13 seconds into the game. The extra point was blocked, and it was 6-0.
Grant County turned the ball over on downs from its own 25 after a Stapleton stop. Colbert picked up 15 yards on two carries to set up first-and-goal from the 8. Griggs carried it to the one, and Perry walked into the end zone two plays later. The extra point was wide right, leaving it a 12-0 lead.
The Braves again gifted the Warhawks’ field position after a fourth-down pass from their own 21 came up short. Markeese Dean was flying all over the field delivering hard hits behind the line of scrimmage at that stage of the game.
"The coaches started moving me around and said go full speed," Dean said.
In a switch, Allen was inserted into the backfield, and from the 14, he barreled over several tacklers for his first touchdown. He also tacked on the two-point conversion.
"Coach felt I could run over people and put me back there," Allen said.
That's when Grant County let Kaiser carry the ball. And carry the ball. And carry the ball.
"I knew as long as they kept running east and west we would be OK because of our speed," Rains said. "But I knew if they started pile-driving the ball into the line, it would be trouble. And they did."
Kaiser carried the ball 11 straight times and scored with 1:45 left in the half, making it 20-6.
The second half started much the same. Kaiser carried the ball nine straight plays before punching it in. After a three-and-out for Great Crossing, it was another dose of Kaiser with a sprinkling of Sutherland as the Braves tied the game.
But the Warhawks rose to the challenge to get the elusive first win.
"We knew we had to step up. Me and Trenton, we fought through practices, and we just knew we had to step up," Dean said.
Rains was understandably proud of what the team did Friday night.
"They could have just rolled over when they tied it up. We are 0-8 and it would be easy to have just rolled up," he said. "But they didn't. I am so proud of what they did tonight."