Hardaway running back Marco Lee gave everyone plenty of evidence Thursday that he might be the best player in the Columbus area. The only downside was the senior’s standout showing came in a losing effort.
Lee was nearly unstoppable against Americus-Sumter (6-2, 5-0), taking 33 carries for 230 yards and four touchdowns. The problem was the Panthers’ offense went wild as well, and an early 16-0 lead aided by a controversial call proved too much for Hardaway (3-5, 2-3) to ever overcome.
While the Panthers got the victory, there was no denying it was Lee’s night in Memorial Stadium.
“Marco Lee is a workhorse, and it’s that simple,” Hardaway head coach Michael Woolridge said. “The kid works hard. It’s a testament to the work he puts in the weight room. He’s a bull in the weight room, and it shows out here.”
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Lee’s four touchdowns came on carries of 29 yards, 9 yards, 64 yards and 3 yards, respectively. His final touchdown -- which came with 11:18 to go in the fourth quarter -- left the Hawks trailing Americus-Sumter 42-33 after trailing 36-21 at halftime.
Despite a quiet second half, the Panthers answered adequately two possessions after Lee’s last score.
After a Hardaway turnover on downs, Americus-Sumter milked five minutes off the clock and scored on a short rushing touchdown with only two minutes to go. The Panthers added a pick six before Hardaway’s Jaron Early scored late, but the road victory was already well in hand.
Hardaway made the region showdown a shootout, but the opening minutes made a blowout look inevitable.
On Americus-Sumter’s first play from scrimmage, quarterback Keirston Harvey threw a deep pass to Braelin Williams, who rumbled his way to a 38-yard touchdown. After a Hardaway fumble, the Panthers’ marched down to the Hardaway 12-yard line with more points on their minds.
Harvey fired a pass to the end zone, but Jakhari Thomas made the interception in the back of the end zone. Thomas attempted to advance out of the end zone but was tackled before the goal line. The play was ruled a safety for Americus-Sumter, leaving the Panthers with a 9-0 lead.
The ensuing possession was a quick four-play drive that ended with an Americus-Sumter touchdown, effectively serving as a nine-point swing for the Panthers.
Woolridge was adamant in saying the questionable penalty was not something that held his team back.
“From my understanding, if he is in the end zone and attempts to come out and gets tackled, then it’s a safety,” Woolridge said. “You can say (that penalty put us in a hole), but you can never blame a game on one call. We’re Hardaway, and we’re not about excuses.”
To the Hawks’ credit, they didn’t give in when the safety-induced momentum swing occurred. Lee scored Hardaway’s first two touchdowns, the second making it a 29-14 game in the second quarter. After a Americus-Sumter touchdown pass with 14 seconds left in the quarter, Courtland Dixon ran the ensuing kick back for a 76-yard score, leaving Hardaway down 15 at the half.
The trading points continued for most of the remaining 24 minutes of play, with Lee responsible for two more touchdowns. The performance added to what’s been an outstanding year for the senior, and it has his coach hopeful for the running back’s future.
“We’re just looking to get this kid in a big-time school,” Woolridge said.
Based on Thursday’s game alone, Woolridge and his coaches shouldn’t have to look much longer.
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports