Lions rally past CCHS, clinch playoff berth


By Lionel Green/Sand Mountain Reporter

Jesse Hubbard tossed the game-winning 6-yard touchdown pass to Austin Hallmark with three seconds left to send Sardis to a 42-38 come-from-behind win over Cherokee Countyon Friday (Oct. 17) in Sardis City.

“There was a lot of discussion about what we were going to do,” said Sardis head coach Gene Hill about the game-winning play. “We thought about lining up in a field goal formation. We’ve got a fake off our field goal that we thought we might run, and then if we don’t complete it, we’ve got another down. 

“Our time there was close and everything, and we were going to go back and throw to Hallmark again from the quarterback position. Then a coach said let’s put Jesse right here and let him roll and throw it. It was just spur of the moment. We put the ball in some of our better players’ hands. Big players like that step up and make plays.”

In a pressure-packed contest with the final playoff spot in Class 4A, Region 6 on the line, the Lions came back from double-digit deficits three times in the second half to pull out the victory.

Keenan Lewis scored four touchdowns, including an 86-yard kickoff return, and rushed for 225 yards on 19 carries to lead the Lions. Hubbard added 83 yards rushing and completed two passes for 20 yards and a touchdown. Hallmark caught three passes for 28 yards and a touchdown.

Sardis improved to 4-4 overall and 3-3 in the region and likely clinched the fourth and final playoff berth in the region.

The Lions fell behind 21-7, 31-21 and 38-28 in the second half but kept coming back again and again.

The teams were tied 7-7 at halftime, but the Lions should have enjoyed a comfortable first-half lead. However, they turned the ball over three times and were penalized seven times for 73 yards in the first half.

Sardis opened the scoring on a 34-yard touchdown run by Lewis in the first quarter for an early 7-0 lead. Cherokee County evened the game up at 7-7 with a 1-yard run by Samuel Mallett with 31 seconds left in the first half.

The Warriors scored on their first two drives of the second half.

Quarterback Tyren Dupree hit Thomas Graves on a 58-yard touchdown pass, and Mallett added a 1-yard scoring plunge to put Cherokee County up 21-7 with 4:08 left in the third quarter.

Just before the Mallett touchdown, Hill, frustrated by the officiating, called a timeout, walked onto the field and chewed out almost every official within earshot. The tirade earned him a penalty but also sparked his team as the Lions scored two touchdowns in the next two minutes and seven seconds.

“It was several things over the course of the night, especially the first half,” Hill said about his rant. “They were calling our linemen for chop blocking. I’ve been coaching a long, long time. You’ve got a free blocking zone in there, and it’s kind of iffy. You hardly ever see it called. Some of the officiating didn’t go our way. It is what it is.”

Lewis exploded for a 66-yard touchdown run on the first play of the ensuing Sardis drive, then Bryan Noblitt recovered a bad snap on a Warrior punt in the end zone for a score that tied the game at 21-21 with 2:01 left in the third quarter.

Cherokee County responded with the next 10 points. Dupree threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Justin McKnight and James Sewell booted a 27-yard field goal to push the Warrior advantage to 31-21 with 9:28 left in the game.

But Lewis’ 86-yard kickoff return for a touchdown cut the Sardis deficit to 31-28 with 9:13 remaining in the game.

Cherokee County followed with a five-play, 49-yard drive capped by Caskie Kidd’s 8-yard touchdown run. Sewell’s fifth extra point of the night gave the Warriors a 38-28 lead with 6:01 left in the game.

Lewis immediately answered the bell with a 67-yard touchdown run on the next Sardis play from scrimmage. Sawyer Cahela’s extra point pulled the Lions within 38-35 at the 5:43 mark of the fourth quarter.

Cherokee County fumbled a high snap on its next drive, and Noblitt recovered the ball at the CCHS 45 with less than four minutes left in the game. 

On the game-winning drive, Sardis twice faced fourth down. Hubbard rushed for six yards on a fourth-and-2 from the Warrior 48, while quarterback Logan Gaskin threw a perfect strike to Hallmark for 16 yards on a fourth-and-four play that moved the Lions to the Warrior 20.

“You’ve got a ninth-grade quarterback out there throwing that slant and threw it probably as good as you could throw it,” Hill said.

Two runs by Lewis pushed the ball to the Cherokee County 6 with 12 seconds left, setting the stage for the Hubbard-to-Hallmark game-winning touchdown pass.

“This [win] could be all the difference in the world, especially two games before going into the playoffs,” Hill said. “What a confidence booster. This is the first game we’ve been pretty much healthy. We’re closer to being healthy and 100 percent more than we’ve been all year. The biggest thing about all this is the kids just believe they’re going to win.”

Sardis visits Crossville on Friday to close out region play. 

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