By ZACH HARMUTH | Photos by VANESSA BEACH
The playoffs, for all intents and purposes, started a week early at Spring Hill High School on Friday night.
In a fight for the fourth and final playoff spot in Region 4-4A, the Raiders (5-5, 2-3) knocked the Lawrence County Wildcats (3-7, 1-4) out with a 41-6 win.
Led by Dontae Smith, who scored on both sides of the ball with 22-yard run and an 80-yard interception return, and Blake Lovell, who threw three touchdowns and ran in another, the Raiders scored 34 points in the first half after falling behind 6-0 early.
“Our offense does best when balanced,” Spring Hill head coach Jay Emmons said. “Dontae is great running back, and having a quarterback who can take some pressure off the run opens creases up, just like he opens them up over the top for the receivers. It made a real difference.”
The Raiders, who had lost four straight coming in after a 4-1 start to the year, play at undefeated Region 3-4A champ Stone Memorial next week. It is the school’s first playoff berth since 2014, and a feather in first-year head coach Emmons’ cap.
“They fought all year long through injuries and bad situations,” Emmons said. “They are fighters and stand up every week and come ready to work. It is good to see it pay off and for us to meet our goal of making the playoffs this year.”
The Wildcats scored on their first possession, a six-yard run by Adrian Berry halfway through the first quarter. The Raiders scored on every first-half possession but their first, and even on one of Lawrence County’s possessions.
Following Berry’s score, Spring Hill returned a short kick to midfield.
A catch by Justin Oden, a Smith run and a facemask penalty quickly moved the ball to the Wildcat 22-yard line.
And Smith, who came in averaging a ridiculous 165 yards per game on more than 10 yards per carry, took the ball off tackle right through the Lawrence County secondary and 22 yards to the end zone. The four-play, 53 yard drive, with the extra point, gave the Raiders their first lead, 7-6, with 4:43 to play in the first quarter. Smith finished with 130 yards on 11 carries.
On the next possession, the Raiders held the Wildcats to a quick punt before striking again on a lightning-quick drive.
Taking over off the punt on their own 33, a Smith run ended the first quarter with the Raiders on their own 40 yard line.
On the first play of the second quarter, Blake Lovell found Darrin Johnson deep for a 60-yard touchdown connection. The two-play, 67-yard drive took less than thirty seconds and gave Spring Hill a 14-6 lead just ten seconds into the second quarter. Lovell finished 8-of-13 for 211 yards and three touchdowns, to go with 16 yards and a score on the ground.
Things only got worse for Lawrence County, as the game quickly downgraded from competitive to complete destruction.
It started its next drive with good field position, at its own 47-yard line, and was driving, having reached the Spring Hill 20.
But Gage Thigpen went back to pass, threw and the ball ended up in Smith’s arms. He raced 80 yards for the score, giving the Raiders a 21-6 lead barely two minutes into the second quarter. Thigpen finished 5-of-11 for 45 yards and an interception.
On the next play, the Raiders recovered Ethan Hultgran’s onside kick and took over at the Wildcats 40-yard line with 9:44 to play.
Two and a half minutes later, Blake Lovell found Jamal Steele for a 20-yard touchdown pass, making it a 28-6 game with 7:06 to play in the first half.
The Wildcats put together a nearly-four minute drive in response, but Thigpen could not find Preston Lynn on fourth-and-12 from the Raiders’ 21-yard line.
Spring Hill took over and immediately scored, with Lovell finding Oden for a 79-yard sprint. Hultgran’s extra-point attempt was blocked, making the score 34-6, which held until halftime. Oden led the Raiders with 96 yards and the score on 3 catches.
In do or die mode, the Wildcats went for every fourth down in the second half. The Raiders scored on a drive in the third quarter pff of a failed fourth down, when Lovell scrambled in from 6-yards out midway through the third to bump it up to 41-6. Then, with less than half the fourth quarter left, the Wildcats finally got back on the board, but failed on the two-point conversion attempt.
Berry was a lone bright spot for Lawrence County, leading all rushers with 171 yards on 23 carries and a score.