By: David Wells
For three quarters, it looked like Independence had a date with the 6A semifinals waiting over Thanksgiving weekend.
But thanks to a late rally by Hendersonville, the Eagles were grounded in their only home game of the playoffs as the Commandos stunned Independence 36-35 Friday night in the quarterfinals.
Lead by strong performances from its receivers, Independence (9-4) jumped out to a 28-7 lead in the second quarter and led 35-22 headed into the fourth quarter.
However, Hendersonville (10-3) scored 14 uncontested points in the last 12 minutes of play, taking the fateful lead from the Eagles on a 5-yard run by Corey Jones with 37.9 seconds left. Jones scored three touchdowns and led a Commando ground attack that rushed for 385 yards with 202 rushing yards of its own.
Eagles quarterback Andrew Bunch passed to six different receivers for 295 yards and three touchdowns, but he struggled late under pressure from Hendersonville’s defense, which sacked him three times in the fourth quarter and picked him off on the final play of the game.
Bunch also failed to complete his last six pass attempts, and he was 7-of-17 for 64 yards in the second half.
It was an entirely different story for Bunch and the Independence offense in the first half. Wary of kicking or punting to Vic Wharton, the Commandos opted to onside kick and go for it on fourth down.
The Eagles made them pay.
Independence had a short field in the first half starting at its own 48-yard line on average and scoring on four of its first five drives. Bunch threw touchdown passes to three different receivers–two of which were over 50 yards–while Wharton added a 9-yard touchdown run to make it 28-7 with 2:03 left in the half.
Hendersonville countered with 15 unanswered points, ending the half with a 39-yard Bryce DeGuira field goal and scoring back-to-back touchdowns to begin the second half.
Independence widened the gap to 35-22 on a 12-yard Dom Childress run, driving 80 yards on 10 plays in 1:59.
After the Commandos punted, Independence began its next drive at its own 24 and came as close as Hendersonville’s 27 thanks to an 18-yard reception by Gaulden. But it was to no avail; on third down, Bunch was sacked for a loss of 7 yards, and he couldn’t convert on third down.
By then, the momentum was swinging in the Commandos’ direction. Quarterback Jeremias Elston, who up until that point had completed one pass for -4 yards, converted fourth down with a 13-yard run and completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to Braden Schwerdt with 4:07 left in the game.
Independence had a chance to win it after the final kickoff when Wharton caught an 18-yard pass that would have set up a 49-yard field goal for kicker Drake Dormann, but that play was called back due to an ineligible receiver penalty.