SPRINGVILLE- The South Pontotoc Cougars and the Pontotoc Warriors locked claws and tomahawks last Thursday in a tussle that went down to the wire, but the Tribe managed to foil the Cats’ homecoming, taking a win in Springville, 24-21.
South spread their scoring out evenly, posting 7 points in the second, third, and fourth quarters. The Cougars dug in and played grind-it-out football, but Pontotoc’s athleticism prevailed with big-play makers coming up clutch when it mattered.
Pontotoc has lived and died by the big play this season.
As Coach Jeff Carter put it, “We’ve given up a big play in every game, and that’s really hurt us,” said Carter. Nic Townsend and Jordan Ball each provided crowd-rousing highlights on Thursday to give the Tribe the edge.
As the final seconds of the game ticked down, South retrieved an onside kick and began moving down the field, but miscues and stout defensive play from the Warriors held the Cats in check. Jordan Ball was a big presence for Pontotoc on offense and defense, as Coach Carter said, “He (Ball) was all over the place all night long, and he got himself in position to make some big plays.”
The evening started with fireworks for the Warriors, as, on the third play from scrimmage, Ball snatched a Cougar pass for an interception and returned it to the 19 yard-line. South’s defense answered the bell, with Mickelle Dawson and Zachary Patterson stuffing a play in the red zone, forcing the Warriors to settle for an Eddie Nolasco field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Nolasco’s play has been crucial to the Warriors’ season, Carter said.
“The biggest difference in this game was special teams,” said Carter. “I think we won the special teams battle. These games are almost always close, and without his (Nolasco’s) special teams kicks and field goals, I don’t know if we could have won.”
Each of Pontotoc’s four season wins have been decided by three points or fewer.
The back-and-forth battle prevailed until midway though the second quarter, when Nic Townsend, who filled in at quarterback for injured Connor Armstrong, and figures to do so for the rest of the season, hit Kyleal McShan on third and long for a first-down to the Cougar 36 yard-line. Townsend then took it in himself, off the right edge, and with the PAT the Tribe led 10-0 with seven minutes remaining in the half.
On the ensuing possession, South’s Chase Long thumped and thundered his way for a couple of hard runs. Pontotoc’s Kentrel Peters shot into the Cougars’ backfield and blew up a play for loss.
Cougar quarterback Clayton Heatherly rolled to his right and hit Long in the flat for a first down to the Warrior 44 yard-line. Cody Stutsy ran hard to the 31, then Heatherly launched a hopeful shot toward the end zone that Trace Ash wrestled away from three defenders for a touchdown. Noah Fleming’s PAT pulled the Cats close, at 10-7, going into the intermission.
Early in the third quarter South’s Mickelle Dawson turned in another defensive gem, bringing down a Pontotoc runner to force a punt. On the other side of the ball, Malachi Brown ran down a screen the Cougars tried to set up.
The Cougars mounted their most impressive and cleanly executed drive of the night in the third quarter. Moving behind strong blocks from Austin Shumpert and Chase Long, Heatherly hit Stutsy over the middle for a big gain to the Warrior 46 yard line. Lane Chunn helped plow a path for Stusty to carry it in from five yards out and the PAT put South back in front, 14-10.
Ball gave fans another highlight with a pick-six interception, complete with a 40 yard return, and the Warriors went up to stay at 17-14.
The Cougars fumbled a kickoff which put the Tribe in business with a short field. Blocks from Jimmy Ray and Davin McGregor helped spring Townsend off the left side for a touchdown.
Stutsy added a late TD for South, and the recovery of the onside kick had half the county holding its breath, but the Warriors took over on downs and went into the kneel-down victory formation.
South Coach Rod Cook said he saw some gutsy play from his guys, but losing always leaves a bad taste.
“Our guys played hard, but we made mistakes that cost us,” said Cook. “We gave ourselves a chance at the end, but we just couldn’t put it together.”
Pontotoc improved to 4-3 on the season, 2-0 in division 2-4A. South fell to 2-5, 0-2 in division.
The Warriors host the Houston Hilltoppers on Friday; a squad that was undefeated until North Pontotoc clipped them by one point, 38-37, on Thursday.
South Pontotoc travels to Ripley to face the 5-1 Tigers.