Messenger file photo by Chris McCarthy
By Ron Balaskovitz/Sand Mountain Reporter
First-year Sardis head coach Chris Stephenson said in all his years coaching, last Friday’s first half against DAR might have been the worst one he’s ever had a team play.
But the Lions found a way to turn it around in the second half, using a bruising running game that found the end zone twice and a defense that pitched a second-half shutout, lifting Sardis to a season-opening 16-14 win in Sardis City.
“It feels good,” said Stephenson. “[This is] what this community needed, what the school needed, what I needed, what our coaching staff, what the players [and] what the students needed.”
Quarterback Blaze Gerhart (pictured above) rushed for 186 yards, while Levi Martin added 70, including the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. He also had a sack and an interception on defense. In total, the Lions rushed for 298 yards in the win, while the defense held the Patriots to negative one rushing yards.
After a three-and-out from each team to open the game, it was the Sardis defense that opened the scoring. Pinning DAR back at its own 9,-yard line, a host of Lion pass rushers led by Wesley Cooper met at the quarterback, bringing him down in the end zone for a safety and a 2-0 lead.
The Patriots eventually reached the Sardis 43, where a direct snap on a fake punt landed a first down. Trey Bolt then hit AJ McCamey for a 39-yard touchdown pass and a 7-2 lead.
DAR stretched the lead to 14-2 on its next series, with Brady Largen capping the drive with a three-yard run.
DAR looked to stretch the lead before the half, but Martin picked off a Bolt pass with under five to play in the half, keeping it a 12-point game.
“All these years I’ve coached, I’ve never had a worse first half in my career,” said Stephenson. “I just thought, ‘Maybe this is the Sardis jinx or whatever,’ but I told them that we had to finish the game. [DAR was] getting tired, and we saw that and took full advantage of it with the run game.”
With the ball out of the break, the Lions turned to their running game. That strategy paid dividends immediately, as the opening drive of the second half burned off half the third quarter clock. Sardis went 84 yards (all on the ground) and racked up six first downs before Derek Tarvin capped the drive with a three-yard score. Gerhart hit tight end Eli Morton in the end zone for a two-point conversion to make it 14-10.
After a three-and-out from the Lion defense, Sardis saw its next drive end in an interception, but the defense again stiffened, forcing a turnover on downs at their own 33 to keep it a one-score game. That’s when Sardis went back to the ground game, with Gerhart hitting for 23 and 39 yards, eventually setting up Martin, who went around the right side from three yards out to give the Lions a 16-14 lead after the two-point attempt failed.
“[The defense] did a great job tonight,” said Stephenson. “When you look at the game as a whole, they saved us. I know I keep saying finish, but that’s what the defense had to do to win the game. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
It was Sardis’ first season-opening win since the 2018 season. The Lions will look to make it two straight for the first time since 2019 when they travel to New Hope on Friday, August 26.
“When you’ve got kids and they show up every day, and they’re walking around hurt, they’ve not finished a game in two or three years, for them to come out and mash and mash and mash like that speaks volumes of their character.”