By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
On the final play, Southwestern stood 4-yards away from the North Laurel end zone trailing 21-14. North Laurel coach Chris Larkey did not see what happened next.
“Fans love it. I hate it. Players love it I guess,” Larkey said. “I couldn’t watch. I just ducked my head and prayed. I waited to see who yelled the loudest and it was us.”
What Larkey didn’t see was a Southwestern receiver flashing open and a pass headed directly into his hands. He also did not see Steven Nelson close the gap and slap away the pass to preserve the win.
“I’m just so thankful our kids played with heart and determination and refused to lose. That’s where I think our program has finally turned the corner,” Larkey said. “They fight and win these close games.”
Larkey had predicted a hard, physical game against the Warriors and got everything he expected. Southwestern score first to become the only team to lead North Laurel this season. They also pushed North Laurel around at times with Logan Campisano rushing for 187 yards and Skylar Stigall also topping 100 yards.
“That’s exactly what I expected. They are a good football team. They showed that tonight,” Larkey said. “They were bigger than us and more physical than us. Our guys just played with more heart.”
Heart that was exemplified by an emotional Gabe Blair after the game. Blair carried the load for North Laurel with 22 rushes for 169 yards. After the game he embraced his dad and said this win was for his papaw. Edsel Blair was one of Gabe Blair’s biggest fans, but he is not here this season to watch.
Blair had just 4-yards on North Laurel’s first three series. They did not pick up a first down on those possessions. Between the first two Jaguars possessions Southwestern streaked down the field behind big gains from Stigall and Campisano. Brandon Pruitt tossed a 9-yard pass to Branson Patterson for a 6-0 lead. The extra point failed.
“The first two series they killed us. We couldn’t get anything. Finally we went with what we do the best. We ran the football,” Larkey said. “That’s what our kids want to do.”
The Jaguars could have been in more trouble. The Warriors stalled their second drive with three consecutive penalties. They started their third possession in great field position after Morgan Wright picked off a Michael Nelson pass. They fumbled the ball back to North Laurel at the 19-yard line.
David Edwards recovered the fumble and North Laurel put the offense on Blair’s shoulders from there. Blair picked up 67 yards on three carries. The third carry was a 21-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead.
“Everybody sees things different in the stands than what I see. I know what our guys are capable of doing. People say throw the ball, but we’re getting 5 yards and keeping the clock running,” Larkey said.
Southwestern’s next possession bogged down again with three straight false start penalties. North Laurel struck quickly with a five-play, 64-yard drive. The big play was a perfect pass down the sideline from Michael Nelson to Cole Lewis for a 50-yard gain. Blair scored on a 4-yard run for a 14-6 lead.
“Cole made some big catches tonight,” Larkey said.
The Jaguars appeared to add to the lead early in the second half when Michael Nelson broke a 46-yard touchdown run. A holding penalty took the points off the scoreboard.
“It’s a different ballgame if we don’t have a holding call on Michael Nelson’s touchdown run,” Larkey said.
The Jaguars were forced to punt and Southwestern rallied on a bruising 97-yard drive with Campisano and Stigall taking turns tearing off big runs.
“Those guys up their front line were 320 and 311 pounds. Our biggest guy is 240-250. It’s hard to do anything with them when they are running downhill,” Larkey said. “They got guys that can gash us for 8 or 10 yards. If they break a tackle it’s a touchdown.”
With 2:07 in the third quarter, Campisano scored on a 3-yard run. Devon Baker ran for the conversion to tie the score 14-14.
After a North Laurel punt, the Warriors were driving for a go-ahead score. Campisano fumbled at the North Laurel 10-yard line with Michael Nelson making the recovery at the 4. After a 6-yard gain by Nelson, Blair did the rest. Most carries were bruising runs up the gut. On the final carry, he popped outside for a 15-yard touchdown with three minutes to play.
Southwestern started its final possession at its own 38 yard line. They were again running for big gains, but the clock was running as well. It was first-and-goal from the 4-yard line when they had time for one more play. They chose a pass.
“Our defense finally bowed up and congratulations to whoever made the final play,” Larkey said, still unsure who it was since he could not watch.