Valley Preps

‘Have to get better’: Hardaway blew a 21-point lead, but it wasn’t over yet

Hardaway found itself at a crossroads following an unconvincing loss to region 1-AAAA power Cairo.

For around 17 of the first 30 minutes of that game, the Hawks looked like a team fired out of a cannon. They scored on their first play from scrimmage, an 80-yard dime of a throw from backup quarterback Javian Toney to Aaron Pitts, who juggled the ball, corralled it, and sprinted to the end zone. The Hawks sideline drew a penalty for celebrating too hard.

The Hawks offense did not score for the rest of the game and the team was outclassed by a talented Cairo squad.

Toney struggled to settle into a rhythm, the Syrupmakers ran trick plays galore and scored 21 unanswered points, ultimately beating Hardaway 21-7. The first-play touchdown counted for just over 40% of Hardaway’s entire offensive output on the night.

“We’ve got to get tougher,” Hardaway coach Michael Woolridge said following the Cairo game.

On a rain-soaked Kinnett Stadium turf on Friday, the Hawks showed their toughness, beating Columbus High 26-24 and winning their third region game.

The possibility of a playoff spot remains up in the air — that picture will become clearer in the coming days — but the tougher Hawks showed their potential (and some signs for worry) in beating the Blue Devils, who have managed just one win in 2019 after a surprise playoff appearance last year.

The good news: Hardaway forced some key early turnovers and built a 21-0 lead. The Hawks led 21-7 at halftime and appeared to be cruising with their starting quarterback D.J. Lucas back in the lineup.

21-point blown lead aside, they still showed a mental toughness that was absent in the Cairo loss. The Hawks missed a field goal that would’ve won the game in regulation, but managed to hold the Blue Devils to a field goal. The Hawks won the game on a short touchdown run up the middle by running back Tahjee Hudson.

“We had to run it because of the conditions,” Woolridge said Friday night. “Wanted to throw it a little bit more, but it’s pouring down rain and you’ve got to run it a little bit. But we’ve got to be able to close the game when we’re up 21-0.”

But this was by no means a flawless win for the Hawks. No coach would be thrilled with a blown three-score lead, and Woolridge’s message to his team in their post-game huddle was a harsh statement that the team must learn how to finish off opponents.

Then there were the turnovers. The Hawks had four of them and failed to capitalize on a Columbus muffed punt deep in Blue Devils territory with less than five seconds left in the game. The drive before that ended with four minutes left with a fumble on the Blue Devils’ 18-yard line.

The Hawks had ample opportunities to put this game away, but failed to. But, a win is a win, and the team didn’t mentally fold when it fumbled with four minutes left, missed a game-winning field goal or fell behind to Columbus when the Blue Devils hit their own field goal on the opening possession of overtime.

“The game should’ve never got (to overtime),” Woolridge said. “Weather conditions didn’t help, but that’s no excuse. We’ve got to be able to close a ballgame out when we’re up 21-0. ... As a team, we have to get better with that if we want to win these last two games.”

To Hardaway’s credit, it found a way to win, like good teams should.

But, like their coach said, the Hawks must learn to put these games away if they want to continue building a successful program.

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.