CALEDONIA — Kyle Thompson was running toward the end zone, so he had no idea how slowly time was moving behind him.
All he had to do was turn around to discover he was in the middle of a game-winning moment.
The gravity of the situation didn’t faze the sophomore, though, as he broke off his route at the goal line and caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Lantz with 24.9 seconds remaining to lift the West Lauderdale High School football team to a 27-20 victory against Caledonia in a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 4A, Region 4 game.
“I didn’t think I was going to catch it,” Thompson said. “I didn’t even know the ball was coming to me until I turned around, so it was just an in-the-moment type of thing and I came out with it.”
West Lauderdale (6-2, 2-0 region) took over at the Caledonia 45-yard line with 2 minutes, 39 seconds left in regulation. Lantz converted a fourth-and-1 from the 36 with a 2-yard gain to extend the drive. The Knights gained 3 yards on the next two plays to set the stage for the drama. Lantz, a freshman making his first start after West Lauderdale lost its first- and second-string quarterbacks due to injuries, felt the pressure in the pocket and was about to get sacked by Josh Livingston before he lofted a pass to the right side of the field, where a group of players gathered for what seemed like an eternity to make a play on the ball. Caledonia’s Garrett Taylor appeared to be in the best position to do that, but Lantz’s rushed throw didn’t give him enough time to move into position and get his body coiled to jump as high as he could. As it was, he backpedaled and reached up with his hand, only to see the ball go right over it to Thompson, who caught the ball on the doorstep and pushed in for his first touchdown catch, which also was his first of his career.
Thompson said he was still in his route and didn’t realize Lantz was under so much pressure. He said he had to stop his route and come back to the ball after he saw it was a little underthrown. He said Taylor was less than an arm’s distance in front of him and that he didn’t remember if the ball tipped off Taylor’s hands or went right over them into his arms.
“(Taylor) was very close to making a play there,” Caledonia coach Andy Crotwell said. “It is just one of those things, and I hate to say a cliche, but it is a game of inches. They had it on that play.”
West Lauderdale coach Stan McCain was just ecstatic Lantz got the ball away for someone to have a chance to make a play. He credited Thompson for making a great play on a call that featured four receivers going vertical.
“I was thinking, ‘Throw it, throw it, throw it, throw it, throw it,'” McCain said. “I thought he was going to take a sack. He threw it to the one I wasn’t expecting him to throw it to. No. 5 was over here and had about two steps on his man.”
McCain said Lantz was pressed into service because West Lauderdale lost its first two quarterbacks to a broken collarbone and a hip flexor/quad injury. One of those injuries came last week when West Lauderdale beat Leake Central 18-14. That game was just one of many he said that have been close and the Knights have found a way to come out on top.
Against Caledonia, McCain had to wait a little longer for the final play to develop to get another victory.
“I about shut my eyes,” McCain said. “I was just glad he got it off. We had another down and I didn’t want him to take a sack, so that was good.
“Our kids believe they are going to win. We don’t do everything just right at the beginning, but we keep playing. Our motto is 48 minutes. We play 48 minutes and we will be OK.”
Caledonia (2-6, 0-2) didn’t have a lot of time, but it moved quickly into scoring position. A 13-yard return by Jordan Aandersongave the Confederates the football at their 43 with 15.9 seconds left. Following an incompletion, Taylor hit Jonathan Comer for a 14-yard gain that moved the ball to the Knights’ 43. With 5.2 seconds to go, Taylor hit Quavis Betts for a 20-yard gain as time expired. But Crotwell was following the official on the Confederates’ sideline and called timeout as soon as the play ended. The officials conferred and put 1.0 second back on the clock. But Caledonia couldn’t capitalize on one final play, as West Lauderdale intercepted Taylor at the goal line on a high-arching ball to the left side.
“It was two incredibly two hard-nosed teams that went after it blow after blow,” Crotwell said. “We have to find a way to begin to close out and win these games. This is the three weeks in a row we have fought tooth and nail against a good football team and we have come up a little bit short.”
Taylor was playing quarterback because senior Ben Marchbanks had to leave the game in the third quarter after being tackled on a quarterback keeper. West Lauderdale was flagged for a facemask penalty on the play that gave Caledonia a first-and-goal at the 8. Marchbanks, who rushed for 92 yards and was 6 of 12 for 70 yards, didn’t return to the game.
Marchbanks wasn’t the only player the Confederates lost. Defensive lineman Jeffrey Gore and safety/wide receiver Cole Gullette also were forced to leave the game due to injuries. Their absences left the Confederates even more short-handed because they already were playing without offensive linemen Cody Cliett and Tristan Nessel, who were on crutches on the sideline. Crotwell said both players likely are out for the rest of the season.
Following close losses to Houston and Choctaw County the past two weeks, Crotwell, who is in his first season as head coach, said the team has to find a way to finish games and come out on top.
“They are a resilient bunch,” Crotwell said. “I don’t know if I have ever been prouder of a way that a group fights than I am of this group. For their sake, I hope we can find a way to close out one of these close ones. They certainly deserve it, but you and I know that in life deserve has nothing to do with it. You have to find a way.”
Crotwell also acknowledged the cliche in the final moments that Livingston was a second or two from making a play that would have prevented the touchdown pass, while Taylor was inches away from knocking down or intercepting Lantz’s pass. Unfortunately for Caledonia, neither one happened.
“They fought hard,” McCain said. “You have to give them credit, too. They were down to their second- and third quarterback at one time. You like to see kids fight. You hate to see team lose a game like that because they both fought hard. We have lost our share in the last three or four years like this, so we feel good to win one like this.”
Despite the nature of the loss, Crotwell said the Confederates will return to work Monday and put together a game plan for Kosciusko that they hope will get them their first region victory of the season.
“I know they are going to come ready to work Monday with the mind-set to win the next one,” Crotwell said. “That is the kind of kids they are.”
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.