For the past three years, the Central High football team has made quick work of Russell County, a Class 5A team that nonetheless has far fewer players on its team that the Red Devils. Many expected this year’s contest on Thursday at Garrett-Harrison Stadium to be more of the same.
Instead, the Warriors came out strong on both sides of the ball, testing the more seasoned Red Devils before finally succumbing to a 34-15 loss.
Central coach Woodrow Lowe had a message for his players after their win.
“Let me tell you, those guys were inspired,” Lowe said to his team in the huddle after the game. “You guys know, a mishap here or there could have what? It could have cost us the game. The only difference is that they didn’t have enough troops. That’s it.”
Despite dressing only 45 players, barely half of whom were varsity, the Warriors were strong on defense early as they forced three-and-outs on the first two Central drives of the game. It allowed two touchdowns in the first half, but held the Red Devils to only 115 total yards before the break, keeping the score at a manageable 14-9.
Facing a bigger task than originally expected, Central relied on running back Kenneth Thomas and running back/wide receiver Traveon Samuel to take the game into their hands.
Thomas responded in a big way, rushing for 149 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He scored each of the Red Devils’ first four touchdowns, two in the first half and two in the third quarter.
The first, a 4-yarder, capped a 21-yard drive that began deep in Russell County territory after Samuel returned the punt 48 yards. After a penalty backed Central up, Samuel caught a 24-yard pass from quarterback Ethan Baber. It was actually a short screen route, but the shifty athlete juked, shifted and dodged a number of Warrior tacklers to take it inside the Russell County 10. Running back Ryan Humphrey got it to the 4, and Thomas did the rest.
His second score came moments after Russell County had taken an unexpected lead late in the first half. Thomas took the ball from the Russell County 26 and trotted to pay dirt to put Central back ahead by five at the half.
After Central first a three-and-out to start the second half, Thomas went 39 yards on two carries to extend the Central lead, and, when Russell County closed the gap to 20-15, he responded again with a 17-yard score near the end of the third.
“You just have to try your best to keep calm no matter what the scoreboard says,” Thomas said of his ability to respond to the Russell County offense. “You just stay focused. My line did a great job blocking for me.”
Lowe said Thomas is another guy, like Samuel and Humphrey, who Central will rely on to be a force in the running game going forward.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Lowe said. “He’s got to be another weapon for us.”
Samuel tallied more than 200 all-purpose yards, 42 of which came on the ground and 75 of which came via the pass.
Baber was 6 of 9 for 143 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His touchdown pass was a 58-yarder to Quandarius Weaver in the fourth quarter.
The biggest story of the game, though, was Russell County’s inspired play despite the odds that were against it. It led the game briefly and continued to answer Central’s scores for as long as it could before fatigue set in.
“The score didn’t even reflect how these guys played,” Russell County coach Demond McCoy said. “I can’t say enough about my guys. They didn’t back down. And as the players grow, our coaching staff is growing, too. We made some mistakes, but that’s why we play the game.”
The Warriors were led by running back Joshua Johnson, who tallied 143 yards and a touchdown, a 55-yarder that cut the score to 20-15 late in the third quarter. Quarterback Byron Johnson was 11 of 18 for 51 yards and a touchdown passing. His touchdown went to tight end Caleb Smith, a 10-yarder in the second quarter.
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Thursday at Garrett-Harrison Stadium
RC 0 9 6 0—15
C 7 7 13 7—34
C—Thomas 4 run (Herring kick); 1:30
RC—Ca. Smith 10 pass from B. Johnson (kick blocked); 8:18
RC—Washington 26 field goal; 3:50
C—Thomas 26 run (Herring kick); 2:26
C—Thomas 1 run (kick failed); 5:34
RC—J. Johnson 55 run (2-point failed); 3:31
C—Thomas 17 run (Herring kick); :52
C—Weaver 58 pass from Baber (Herring kick); 8:38
Team record: Russell County, 0-1; Central 1-0; Next: Russell County at Carroll; Central at Carver-Montgomery.