Athens — As his teammates hooted and hollered and danced to celebrate Friday night's 31-25 season-opening win over the Kaufman Lions, Anthony Sanders sat on a weight bench in the Hornets' locker room getting tape cut off his ankles.
“I'm tired, man,” he said, looking every bit the part of a prize fighter who just went the distance. “I'm so tired I can't even celebrate with my teammates.”
It was an acceptable excuse. After all, Sanders did most of his dancing on the turf at Bruce Field over the prior 48 minutes.
The Athens senior accounted for 173 total yards – including 82 rushing – to lead the Hornets to their first season-opening win in five seasons under head coach Paul Essary. Sanders opened the scoring with a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter, ran for a score in the second and tossed two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback over the Lions, who last season never let Athens in the game in a 44-14 victory – Essary's fourth-consecutive season-opening loss.
“That's a monkey off the back of our program,” said Essary, who's aiming to lead the Hornets to the playoffs for the fourth time in his five season. “That's a monkey off my back as a head coach. It's really been a spur in my saddle, personally. I felt like if we could go into halftime tied or ahead, we were going to win the game.”
The Hornets led at the half, 13-12. But the Lions grabbed their first lead of the game with 6:42 left in the third quarter on a four-yard run by Josh Ramirez. The Lions then made the Hornets settle for a 27-yard David Cedillo field goal to maintain an 18-16 advantage late in the third, which grew to 25-16 on quarterback Clay Rhodes' winding 50-yard touchdown run with 10:39 left in the fourth quarter.
The Hornets responded quickly, with Sanders finding sophomore wide receiver Travon Fuller wide open over the middle of the field on a 63-yard touchdown pass with 9:34 left. On the ensuing kickoff, Cedillo got too far under the ball on a pooch attempt and Athens' KJ Cumby and Manuel Lugo teamed up to recover what amounted to an onside kick with 9:31 on the clock.
Six plays later, Sanders hit Devin Hall with a seven-yard touchdown pass for the go-ahead score with 8:09 left. Sanders – who scrambled for 26 yards on a third-and-15 to keep the drive alive – then found SMU commit Chris Jefferson in the end zone for a two-point conversion.
Kaufman couldn't get anything going on its next offensive series and was forced to punt. Athens then used its brutal rushing attack to grind out the final 7:24 on the clock, running the ball 15 consecutive times behind great blocking from Nic Fincher, Jared Bailey, Juan Guzman, Barrett Senyckyj, Raul Campa and Josh West.
“When Kaufman called its second timeout there at the end, I looked at those linemen and said, 'If we get two more first downs, we win this game,'” Essary said. “I looked at all of those linemen and told them the game was in their hands – win or lose.
“Those guys looked back at me and said, 'We got it.'”
Athens 31, Kaufman 25
Kaufman 0 12 6 7 – 25
Athens 7 6 3 15 – 31
A – Anthony Sanders 38 INT RET (David Cedillo kick), 5:04
K – Josh Ramirez 6 run (kick fails), 11:50
A – Sanders 1 run (kick fails), 7:38
K – Clay Rhodes 32 pass to Cameron Duncan (run fails), 4:31
K – Ramirez 4 run (run fails), 6:42
A – Cedillo 27 FG, 2:20
K – Rhodes 50 run (Eric Mata kick), 10:39
A – Sanders 63 pass to Travon Fuller (Cedillo kick), 9:34
A – Sanders 7 pass to Devin Hall (Sanders to Chris Jefferson pass), 8:09
First downs 15 19
Rush-yards 42-270 58-289
Passing yards 70 91
C-A-I 4-10-2 4-12-0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 1-0
Punts-avg. 2-48.5 4-37.0
Penalties-yards 2-10 3-16
Rushing – K: Clay Rhodes 6-93; Josh Ramirez 14-54; Laxavier Battee 6-20; Brandon Dabney 2-6; Desmond Williams 7-49; Jacob Holley 6-44; Kevin Morrow 1-4. A: Logan Fuller 26-117; Ladarius Jordan 5-3; Anthony Sanders 13-82; Devin Hall 11-64; Travon Fuller 3-23.
Passing – K: Clay Rhodes 4-10-2-70. A: Anthony Sanders 4-12-0-91.
Receiving – K: Jackson Fritz 3-38; Cameron Duncan 1-32. A: Chris Jefferson 1-7; Chris Givens 1-14; Travon Fuller 1-63; Devin Hall 1-7.