CALHOUN CITY — East Webster High School”s football team entered Friday”s third-round playoff game trying to escape the demons of its last trip to Calhoun City.
In 2008, the two programs met in the same round and at the same location. The Wildcats avenged a mid-season loss and ended the Wolverines” unbeaten run.
For a half Friday night, the Wolverines looked like they”d found the answer to winning at Calhoun City. East Webster held a 13-0 lead but saw two lost fumbles and an interception on the penultimate drive doom a 23-21 loss.
The Wolverines (13-1) suffered a familiar playoff heartbreak, falling one game short of the Mississippi High School Activities Association”s Class 2A North Half title game for the third time in three years.
“This means a lot to us, but right now I don”t even know what to say,” senior defensive back Josh Gladney said. “It”s pretty hard.”
Gladney was part of an initial surge of momentum after Demetrius O”Briant”s fumble on the second play of the game. Faced with third-and-goal inside the East Webster 10-yard line, Gladney picked off Calhoun City quarterback J.R. Jennings and returned the interception 79 yards to set up East Webster”s first score.
The Wolverines held Jennings, who came into the game completing 74 percent of his passes, without a completion on his first five attempts.
But Jennings didn”t stay down long, leading the Wildcats to a pair of third-quarter touchdowns and orchestrating the fourth-quarter drive to give Calhoun City the go-ahead field goal.
Jennings finished the game with 198 yards on 20-of-31 completions. He had a touchdown pass either side of half, rebounding nicely from a 3-for-10 start and the red zone interception.
“I think probably to slow him down you call in (Troy) Polamalu from Pittsburgh (Steelers) and all of them,” East Webster head coach Jimmy Carden joked. “He”s pretty good. I don”t know how you slow him down, really. We might have slowed him down a play or two, but he got hot. You can”t stop the perfect pass sometimes.”
East Webster took a 13-0 lead through fullback Timakis Bell, who had a 2-yard touchdown run, and quarterback Ledrick Patterson, who on fourth-and-2 found Lilton Vance for a 12-yard touchdown pass.
East Webster”s defense held Calhoun City to three straight three-and-out possessions but watched momentum shift when Bell lost the second of the team”s three lost fumbles.
Calhoun City cut into the deficit via Jennings” 29-yard touchdown pass to Demarius Howard.
The Wolverines came up empty on their last two drives of the first half but were unfortunate to have a 54-yard pass from Patterson to Graham called back because of an illegal receiver downfield. East Webster players protested the call, which took away possession inside Calhoun City”s 10. The chance to go ahead by two touchdowns was vital, Patterson said.
“It did when they got that lucky break when they called our lineman down the field,” Patterson said. “I think it switched going into half because we would have been up 21-7, and everybody went in and put their head down like we ain”t never been scored on.”
Calhoun City opened the second half with a nine-play scoring drive capped by a 2-yard touchdown run from Avery Hill to take a 14-13 lead.
Patterson was money on fourth downs, providing an immediate response to the Wildcats” go-ahead score with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Gladney on fourth-and-goal.
In the fourth quarter, Calhoun City was faced with a fourth-and-goal from the East Webster 1. Instead of capping the 12-play drive with a sneak or dive, the Wildcats opted for an 18-yard field goal from Raheem Roberson and a 23-21 lead.
On East Webster”s ensuing drive, O”Briant coughed up the ball on the first play and gifted Calhoun City the chance to close the game from the Wolverines” 38.
Calhoun City gained a first down but flamed out on fourth down, giving East Webster the ball at its own 24 with two minutes and 11 seconds remaining in the game.
Then the moment no one in the stadium expected took place: the Wolverines went to a spread offense.
Graham, who plays wide receiver, moved to quarterback and Patterson moved to receiver.
Graham, former backup to Johnathan Banks, converted two straight third downs and a pair of passes to Patterson. Graham hit Bell for 14 yards on third-and-10 to get the Wolverines to the Calhoun City 19.
“Final drive, I told coach go to spread,” Patterson said. ”I told him two points can”t beat us. We worked on that the whole season, but coach always said we ain”t gonna bring it out until we really need it. So tonight, I thought we needed it.”
With just more than a minute left in the game, Graham rolled left looking for Patterson but was picked off by Calhoun City”s Tray Pratt, ending the game with the third turnover.
Carden said the strategy was to score a touchdown despite Bell”s strong leg, noting a missed extra point earlier in the game influencing the decision. He felt comfortable letting Graham direct the offense in the red zone.
“It was working fine ”til we had a bad throw right there, but that”s putting Miguel on the spot,” Carden said. “He hadn”t run it all year long, and here in ballgame No. 14 in a pressure-packed situation you ask the kid to take you down the field. That”s hard on him.”
Calhoun City (14-0) hosts West Bolivar for the 2A North Half title next week.