The longest drought of Paul Essary’s four-year head coaching career in Athens ended Friday night.
At just the right time.
The Hornets (2-6) snapped a five-game losing streak with a 31-7 win over the Mabank Panthers (1-7) at Panther Stadium. The win moved the Hornets to 1-2 in District 15-3A with two games to play — at home next week against Mineola and on the road in the regular-season finale at Brownsboro. Essary’s club needs to win both to keep control of its playoff destiny.
First-year Mabank head coach Jared Wingfield’s Panthers fell to 0-3, while Van and Canton each moved to 3-0 and all but clinched a playoff spot. Canton was a 35-0 winner over Mineola and Van handed rival Brownsboro its first district loss, 70-30.
“I’m real proud,” Essary said. “We had some turnovers early that kept Mabank in the game, but I’m real proud of how we bounced back.”
Essary said he was especially pleased with how the Hornets responded after Mabank drove 51 yards in 14 plays to tie the score at 7-7 on Clay Gaddis’ two-yard run with 3:41 left in the second quarter. The Hornets got the ball back and went 67 yards in 12 plays to score on Chris Jefferson’s 12-yard pass from Anthony Sanders with 57 seconds left in the half. Jesse Durham’s PAT put the Hornets up 14-7 at halftime, and Athens scored three more times in the second half to complete the rout.
“That showed a lot of improvement on our part, because in the past we’d let something like that happen (Mabank’s late second-quarter score) and we’d get our heads down,” Essary said. “But we bounced right back and responded. I thought we just did a great job.”
Essary asked nine different backs to carry the load for a Hornet running game that surpassed the 300-yard mark for the second consecutive contest. But with last week’s star — Devin Hall, who ran for 267 yards — slowed with an injury, the Hornets had to look further down the depth chart for contributions.
They got what they needed from the likes of Daniel Salazar, who ran 14 times for a team-high 77 yards, and Jesse Taylor, who Essary praised for not only his running, but blocking. Anthony Sanders ran for 73 yards, while Raheem Miller — who tweaked his back during pre-game warm-ups and didn’t see much action until the second half — finished with 60 yards on just seven carries. Hall had 51 yards and scored his sixth touchdown over the past three games.
Antwon Chilton caught his first varsity touchdown, a bobbling catch from 36 yards out in the third quarter, and Durham nailed a 24-yard field goal to give him four over the past three games.
Gaddis had a solid night for the Panthers, running 24 times for 77 yards. On Mabank’s touchdown drive — which followed a muffed punt by Athens — the sophomore carried the ball on 10 of his team’s 14 plays.
Athens 31, Mabank 7
Athens 7 7 14 3 — 31
Mabank 0 7 0 0 — 7
A – Devin Hall 10 run (Jesse Durham kick), 4:37
M – Clay Gaddis 2 run (Korey Roberts kick), 3:41
A – Chris Jefferson 12 pass from Anthony Sanders (Durham kick), 0:57
A – Sanders 5 run (Durham kick), 8:21
A – Antwon Chilton 36 pass from Sanders (Durham kick), 5:01
A – Durham 24 FG, 7:18
First downs 24 11
Rush-yards 59-306 37-93
Passing yards 127 70
C-A-I 6-13-0 7-23-0
Fumbles-lost 7-3 2-2
Punts-avg. 1-31.0 6-24.1
Penalties-yards 4-54 2-10
Rushing — A: George Hutson 1-9; Adam Stallings 5-22; Travon Fuller 2-11; Anthony Sanders 12-73; Daniel Salazar 10-77; Devin Hall 14-51; Raheem Miller 7-60; Jesse Taylor 2-0; Kody Ingham 4-26; team 2-(-23). M: Clay Gaddis 24-77; Rance Thorne 6-25; Jhon Leon 1-1; Christian Watkins 1-(-3); Trevor Chasteen 2-6; Santiago Dominguez 1-2; team 2-(-15).
Passing — A: Anthony Sanders 6-12-0-127; George Hutson 0-1-0-0. M: Rance Thorne 7-23-0-70.
Receiving — A: Chris Jefferson 4-72; Jesse Taylor 1-19; Antwon Chilton 1-36. M: Cody Thompson 1-8; Clay Gaddis 3-28; Christian Watkins 2-20; Jhon Leon 1-14.