SPORTS >> Dragons end Wildcats’ title hopes with breakaway run
Leader sports writer
Harding Academy’s perfect season came to an end with 2:11 left in the game Friday when Junction City’s Justin Hoof ran 86 yards to put the Dragons ahead for the first time in the contest. Prior to Hoof’s breakaway run, the HA defense had contained Hoof well, holding him to 23 yards on 11 carries.
The Wildcats tried to respond with a pair of last minute drives, but both resulted in interceptions. Junction City held on to take the 21-16 win, propelling them into the AA semifinals for the fifth straight year.
Friday night’s game was a tale of two halves, with Harding Academy dominating in the first half, jumping out a 14-0 lead over the Dragons while holding JC to 20 yards of total offense in the process.
Junction City looked like a different team altogether in the second half, shutting down HA quarterback Zach Tribble and the spread offense, while Dragon junior tailback Justin Easter began to pound the Wildcat defense with some solid runs.
Junction City coach David Carpenter says his team’s amazing second half comeback is nothing new this season.
“We’ve come from behind in just about every game we’ve been in this year,” Carpenter said. “We knew we were going to have to have a big run in just a minute, I just didn’t think it was going to be that one. We ran a trap back to the weak side, and it worked out well for us. The second half has been our half.”
Harding Academy coach Tommy Shoemaker was emotional after the difficult loss.
“Sometimes momentum is a funny thing,” Shoemaker said. “You can’t get it back, and they’ve got it. Hey, they’ve got tradition, so do we.
“They didn’t give up, they didn’t get down. They knew what they had to do and they did it. We didn’t, and that’s what it all came down to.”
The first half looked as if Harding Academy would take another easy playoff win, as the HA defense allowed two first downs in the first half. One of those first downs for Junction City was the result of an offsides penalty against the Wildcats.
Harding Academy did all of their damage in the opening quarter, scoring on their second and third possessions of the game.
The first score came on a 10- play, 48-yard drive capped off with a 4-yard TD keeper from Zach Tribble with 6:46 left in the first quarter.
The Wildcats’ next drive was almost identical, with HA going 52 yards in 11 plays, with Zach Tribble finding Chase Ransom for the 6-yard touchdown pass in the final 10 seconds of the first quarter.
Junction City’s running game had no steam in the first half. Junior standouts Justin Easter and Justin Hoof were held for a combined six yards rushing on seven carries.
The majority of the Dragons’ yardage in the first half was a 12-yard pass play from QB Steven Jones to Anthony Carter.
Harding Academy continued to stop Hoof in the second half, but Easter started to find his way through the HA secondary. The Dragons’ offensive line began to open up some holes for the runner, and Easter took advantage.
Easter got all of his 106 yards rushing in the second half, and put Junction City on the board for the first time with 7:23 left in the third quarter. Easter went over the top for the score on first and goal from the 1-yard line.
Jones scored the Dragons’ next TD to start out the fourth quarter with a sneak at the Harding Academy goal line to tie things up at 14 all with 11:10 left in the game.
It began to look as if the game might be headed towards overtime, as the two teams traded the ball back and forth.
Luke Tribble thwarted JC’s next drive with an interception inside the Wildcats’ 5-yard line.
Zach Tribble kept the next drive alive for Harding Academy with a fake punt that resulted in a 13-yard run for the first down, but two incomplete passes and a two-yard loss for halfback J.T. Fisher forced another fourth-down situation.
Tribble punted for real this time, and the Dragons took over from their own 14-yard line.
The whole complexion of the game changed on the next play, when Hoof took the ball on the right side, but was met at the line of scrimmage by two HA defenders. The Wildcats defenders wrapped Hoof up, but he worked his way free. Hoof then took it all the way in from there, putting the Dragons ahead 21-14 with just over two minutes left.
Tribble was intercepted twice in the final two minutes, first on a pass intended for Eddie Koch at the JC 4-yard line. Easter came down with the pass, and the Dragons attempted to run out the clock.
With all three timeouts remaining for Harding Academy, Junction City was unable to run the remaining minute and a half off the clock.
Jones ran the ball into the JC end zone on fourth down to run as many seconds off the clock as possible, giving the Wildcats the safety with eight seconds remaining.
After the free kick went out of bounds, the Wildcats took over from their own 40-yard line with one more shot at the win. Tribble tried to find his brother Luke on the first pass, but it was broken up by the JC defenders with one second left.
The second hail-Mary pass intended for Ransom was intercepted by Justin Cook, ending the 6AA-conference champion’s season with a final record of 12-1.
Tribble’s stats told the story for Harding Academy’s offense in the game. The senior quarterback completed 14 of 29 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown in the first half as well as a rushing touchdown, while only completing five of 18 passes for 66 yards and two interceptions in the second half.
The loss ends an incredible run for the Harding Academy seniors. Luke Tribble, Kurt Adams, Jacob Odom and the rest of the HA seniors have had three successful years as part of the Harding Academy football program.