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Cats win after tightening up kickoff coverage
By Greg Woods
It was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves.
All 51 points in the Cats 27-24 win over Walton Verona came in the first half; and most of those came in the first quarter.
It was a game in which the Wildcats found themselves playing catch up in the first half against Walton-Verona and kickoff coverage was a glaring weakness.
Henry County got outstanding offensive contributions from the brothers Fish. Mason Fish, the youngest of the brothers, left the game with bruised ribs at the end of the first quarter after returning a kickoff 80 yards.
The Wildcats finally tightened up their special teams play. The Wildcats lost running back Trent McManis minutes after losing Mason Fish. McManis’ got his bell rung just minutes into the second period and was held out for precautionary reasons for the rest of the game.
It was that kind of game.
The first half was high octane scoring. The second half was all about the defenses.
In the frenetic first half, the Cats clawed their way to a 27-24 lead but knew they would be without the services of their top two running backs.
In the grinding second half, neither team could push the ball across the goal line despite long drives by both teams.
The game opened with a bang for the Bearcats who returned the opening kickoff 72 yards to the Wildcat 3-yard line, setting up a touchdown two plays later. The point-after-touchdown gave the Bearcats a 7-0 lead just 55 seconds into the game.
The Wildcats took over on their own 32-yard line after Cole Nelson returned the kick 27 yards.
After a three-and-out series and an 11-yard punt by the Cats, the Bearcats took over on the 50-yard line and on the first play of the second drive they scored on a 50-yard run on a sweep around the left end. The extra point was good and the Bearcats were up 14-0 with 9 minutes still to play in the first period.
It was looking bleak at this point for the Wildcats as they seemed to have left their “A” game in the locker room. But on the next possession the Fish brothers kicked it into gear.
Brock Fish hit Mason Fish for 9 yards on a swing pass. Mason Fish then bobbled a pitchout but managed to control it and swing around for 20 yards, setting up a 34-yard, up the middle touchdown for Brock Fish. The quiet home crowd was awakened.
The defense stiffened on Walton’s next possession and the Bearcats had to punt after three plays netted just 7 yards.
After a 46-yard boomer and a Wildcats personal foul, the Cats started an old-fashioned 15-play, 88-yard drive from their own 12-yard line. Mason Fish capped the drive with a 6-yard run up the middle for a touchdown.
The Cats’ PAT was blocked, and the Cats were down 14-13.
Just when the Cats’ fans thought that momentum had shifted for their team, Walton returned the kickoff 85 yards for a TD. 21-13 Walton.
The run left the Henry coaches fuming — the Cats have given up 3 long kickoff returns in two games.
But Mason Fish showed that two can play that game.
On the ensuing Bearcat kickoff, Fish returned the ball 78 yards to the Bearcats’ 22-yard line. Fish was injured on the play as it appeared that he landed hard on the football at the end of the play, with a Walton player landing on top of him.
The Cats took 6 plays to get to the 1-yard line. Brock Fish then scored on an inside run to make it 21-19. The two-point conversion attempt failed and the Cats trailed by 2 with 11:07 remaining in the half.
After the touchdown, Henry head coach Jason Spencer made an important decision, and changed the kickoff team. The change paid off as the Cats held the Bearcats to a 7-yard return on the ensuing kickoff.
The Bearcats began to drive from their own 22-yard line, seven plays later, the Cats tackled the Walton running back in the backfield and jarred the ball loose. Tyler Craigmyle came up with the ball and the Cats had their first real chance to take the lead in the game.
On fourth-and-one from the Walton 33, Cody Tindle — playing in an unfamiliar position because of the injuries to Mason Fish and McManis — was hit in the backfield and fumbled the ball. Walton recovered and the threat was snuffed out.
Walton then drove the ball down the field on their first sustained drive of the game.
On the 12th play of the drive, Walton was at 2nd-and-5 when the Cats stuffed the inside run for a 1-yard loss.
A pass-play after time-out failed, and Walton had to settle for a 27-yard field goal with 1:23 to go in the half; keeping the Cats within one touchdown.
The Cats gave Walton a taste of their own medicine on the next kickoff, returning the ball 65 yards to the Bearcats 30-yard line, where Brock Fish barely stepped on the sideline.
The Cats were in good field position with just over a minute to go in the half.
After three plays the Cats faced a 2nd-and-10 situation from the 14-yard line with 33.4 seconds remaining. Brock Fish hit wide receiver Bret Chilton in the end zone, putting the Cats ahead 25-24. Fish ran in the 2-point conversion to put the Cats up by 3.
“That was a key sequence of events,” Spencer said. “We held them to a field goal and then Brock had the long kickoff return to put us in position to score.”
The second half featured better defense by both teams as each had one long drive that came up short.
After neither team was seriously threatened in the 3rd quarter, the Cats drove down the field on a 10 play drive only to have the scoring threat end as Walton intercepted a Fish pass attempt on the 5-yard line.
After a 3-and-out series by both teams, Walton mounted one last attempt to break the Wildcats’ fans’ hearts. Walton took over on their own 30-yard line after a 35-yard Chilton punt.
With 3:25 remaining in the game the Bearcats began to drive the ball. After an incomplete pass, three runs netted 18 yards, and the Cats looked to be in trouble.
Spencer called timeout to talk to his defense.
The next play was an incomplete pass down the left sideline. Walton returned to their bread and butter: they got 8 yards on an inside trap play that put the ball on the Henry County 44-yard line with 2:10 to play.
But the Bearcats were using up precious time running the ball and were forced to go to the air. On 1st and 10 the Bearcats threw downfield where Brock Fish was waiting. Fish got his hands on the ball but could not control it and it fell into the hands of the Walton receiver.
Walton now had 1st-and-10 on the 20-yard line.
On 2nd and 10 with 1:36 remaining Walton attempted to go for it all and the pass was broken up in the end zone. But a yellow flag flew into the air and the Cats were called for a controversial pass interference penalty.
The Bearcats now had first and goal on the 10-yard line. But on the next play, Walton was called for its own penalty, holding, and were back on the 20.
After a 5-yard loss on first down, Walton threw two incomplete passes to the end zone and were forced to go for a game-tying 42-yard field goal.
Spencer called timeout to ice the kicker, but it may have had more of an effect on the center — the snap was slightly high and the holder had to raise up to catch the ball and then get it down for the kicker. The hesitation threw the kicker off and the ball sailed wide left. The Cats and the crowd went wild.
Spencer was happy with his defensive unit after the game. “Our defense only gave up 10 points when you take away those kickoff returns,” he said. “They played much better this week.”
As for his injury-depleted offense, he said, “We still moved the ball some. We just couldn’t sustain a drive in the second half. At halftime we moved back-up quarterback Austin Hartsell to the running back position because as a quarterback he knows all the plays. It wasn’t fair to expect our slot back Cody Tindle to be able to move to that position in the middle of the game without any preparation.”
Spencer praised his junior quarterback and senior wide receiver.
“Brock is a leader on the team, he is inspirational when things don’t go our way,” he said. “He had a great game on offense and helped out on special teams and defense,” he said, “Bret made some big plays on both sides of the ball all night.”