The Athens Hornets have been playing in a pressure cooker for nearly a month. When they took the lid off Friday in a must-win game, they exploded.
The Hornets (4-6) scored three touchdowns over the first 2:54 on their way to a 55-20 win over the rival Brownsboro Bears (5-5) at Bear Stadium. Both teams needed a victory to advance to the playoffs, and the Bears just missed one season after posting a 1-9 record.
The Hornets will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed out of District 15-3A and face Kilgore next Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Whitehouse. Kilgore, which entered Friday night’s game ranked No. 4 in the state at 8-0, lost to Gilmer Friday night, 20-14.
“We’ve basically been in the playoffs for three weeks now,” said Athens head coach Paul Essary, who has now guided the Hornets to the playoffs in three of his four seasons at the school. “I thought we gave a great effort and executed like we needed to, and I’m just tickled to death for them.”
The Hornets — who started the season 1-6 — once again relied on a grinding, time-consuming rushing attack to control the tempo. Athens ran for a season-high 426 yards Friday night, giving them 1,231 yards rushing over the past four games. Athens was 3-1 in those contests — with all three wins coming over the past three weeks.
Their rushing total over the previous six games? 975 yards.
Sophomore Devin Hall, who has had a breakout season, ran for 168 yards on 28 carries and scored three times. Senior Raheem Miller, playing his last regular season football game, turned in a season-high 167 yards and found the end zone twice. Junior quarterback Anthony Sanders added 73 yards — an effort that included twisting, turning gains of 21, 34 and 20 yards.
“We have a young team,” Essary said, “and it just took us a while to gel.”
The Bears had little chance to catch their breath in the game’s opening moments before they looked up and saw themselves trailing by three scores.
Athens got the ball first and, thanks to a 32-yard completion from Sanders to Nic Fincher, found the end zone in just five plays. Hall capped the one-minute, 11-second drive off with a four-yard run to make it 7-0.
Brownsboro’s first possession lasted just three plays — ending with senior quarterback Shelby Rogers being intercepted by linebacker Chris Jefferson. Jefferson leaped to snag the pass and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 14-0.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Brownsboro return man couldn’t get a handle on the ball and lost it to Athens’ Kody Ingham. Two plays later, Miller’s three-yard touchdown run increased the lead to 20-0. Less than three minutes had expired in the contest.
The Bears fired back, with Rogers hitting Davonte Givens on a 27-yard touchdown pass that cut the lead to 20-7 with 4:05 left in the opening quarter.
But the Hornets responded with three consecutive touchdowns — a Sanders one-yard run, George Hutson’s 22-yard touchdown catch from Sanders and a 45-yard run from Miller — to pad the lead to 41-7 with 2:33 left to go before halftime. That two-quarter output nearly matched the Hornets’ season-high in points (42), scored last week against Mineola.
The Bears scored near the end of the first half on Rogers’ 56-yard touchdown pass to Quintus Lee, and Lee returned the opening kickoff of the third quarter 103 yards for a touchdown to pull his team to within 41-20 of the Hornets. Athens, however, answered with Hall touchdown runs of four and 18 yards to keep the lead well out of reach.
Rogers, who threw for 2,000 yards last season, just missed the mark with 168 yards passing Friday night. The latest in a string of outstanding Brownsboro quarterbacks, Rogers saw his senior season end with 20 touchdowns and 1,986 yards passing — both tops in the Henderson County area.
Athens 55, Brownsboro 20
Athens 20 21 7 7 — 55
Brownsboro 7 6 7 0 — 20
A – Devin Hall 4 run (Jesse Durham kick), 10:36
A – Chris Jefferson 24 INT return (Durham kick), 9:46
A – Raheem Miller 3 run (kick fails), 9:06
B – Davonte Givens 27 pass from Shelby Rogers (Cesar Gutierrez kick), 4:05
A – Anthony Sanders 1 run (Durham kick), 10:58
A – George Hutson 22 pass from Sanders (Durham kick), 4:12
A – Miller 45 run (Durham kick), 2:33
B – Quintus Lee 56 pass from Rogers (kick blocked), 1:31
B – Lee 103 KO return (Gutierrez kick), 11:42
A – Hall 4 run (Durham kick), 0:32
A – Hall 18 run (Durham kick), 6:00
First downs 25 12
Rush-yards 56-426 25-65
Passing yards 64 168
C-A-I 3-8-0 14-22-1
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1
Punts-avg. 0-0.0 3-39.0
Penalties-yards 7-65 4-43
Rushing — A: Devin Hall 28-168; Raheem Miller 16-167; Daniel Salazar 3-9; Anthony Sanders 8-73; Kody Ingham 1-9. B: Johntae Walker 18-56; Dustin Bendall 1-(-1); Quintus Lee 2-4; Shelby Rogers 3-0; Davonte Givens 1-6.
Passing — A: Anthony Sanders 3-8-0-64. Shelby Rogers 14-22-1-168.
Receiving — A: Nic Fincher 1-32; Daniel Salazar 1-10; George Hutson 1-22. B: Tyler Thomison 4-33; Cesar Gutierrez 2-5; Davonte Givens 6-66; Quintus Lee 1-56; Dustin Bendall 1-8.