By Scott Nickerson, Sports Writer/Photos by Nickerson and Katie Stuart
In one of the most astonishing statistics I’ve seen as a high school football player, fan, and now sports writer, the Stanhope Elmore High School defense forced 7 turnovers in their Class 6A 2nd Round Matchup against the Park Crossing Thunderbirds. Quarterback Andrew Rines had three touchdown passes, and running back Tre Duncan had another two touchdowns, yet it wasn’t enough as the Mustangs lost 35-32.
There were two main reasons it wasn’t enough. First, the Thunderbird offense was the epitome of feast or famine, scoring touchdowns mostly when they didn’t turn it over, with electric quarterback Trevor Robinson routinely gashing the usually stout Mustang defense with long runs and passes. The second reason the Mustangs fell short was their own turnover problem. Stanhope Elmore High had five turnovers, throwing two interceptions and losing three fumbles, but none more crushing than the final fumble just 40 yards away from the end zone with under a minute to go.
After picking up a 1st down on a Tre Duncan run which moved the ball from midfield inside the Park Crossing 40-yard line, the Mustangs coaching staff signaled for Rines to spike the ball to stop the clock which was set to start on the official’s whistle. Rines appeared unsure whether or not to go under center to take the snap but did so as the clock began. He did not field the snap cleanly, and the ball fell to the turf and was recovered by the Thunderbirds, sealing the win for Park Crossing and ending the Mustangs’ season. Almost, if not every single snap Rines took during the season, came from the shotgun formation and his unfamiliarity with taking the snap from under center backfired at the worst possible moment.
The entire game featured wild momentum swings for both teams. Park Crossing sliced through the Stanhope Elmore High defense on the first two possessions and went up 14-0, only for the Mustangs to score touchdowns the next three times they touched the ball, with a 36-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Conner Bradford, and two rushing touchdowns by Duncan. However, the first Mustangs’ extra point was blocked and the second Mustang touchdown was followed by a failed two-point conversation. Nevertheless, the Mustangs led 19-14 midway through the 2nd quarter. It would be their only lead of the night and was short-lived, as Robinson scored on a 72-yard touchdown run less than a minute later to put the Thunderbirds back ahead by a score of 21-19.
The Thunderbirds came out strong early in the 3rd quarter and appeared set to add to their lead, when a fumble in the end zone was picked up by defensive back Fred Moore, who returned the ball from two yards in the end zone almost 90 yards all the way to the Thunderbirds 13-yard line. Moore also had two interceptions in the first half. The Thunderbirds’ refusal to give up on the play was ultimately the difference in the game. Not only did the tackle take away a Mustangs’ touchdown, but a missed field goal resulted in no points out of the huge turnover. Park Crossing used the momentum to move the ball downfield and score again, going up 28-19.
The Thunderbirds committed pass interference penalties on two different 3rd and long situations and the Mustangs capitalized with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Bradford for his second score of the night. This score, the final of his Mustang career, was possibly the most impressive of any he made in a Stanhope Elmore High uniform. With the ball slightly overthrown, Bradford extended one hand as far as possible stopping the pass and tipping it in the air, while then gaining control with both hands, catching it in the end zone to cut the deficit to 28-25.
The Thunderbirds quickly regained the momentum, with a 39-yard rush on their next offensive play, which was followed up a short time later with a 7-yard touchdown rush to put the home team up by 10 points, 35-25, with 10 minutes left in the game.
After trading turnovers and a missed Park Crossing field goal, it seemed to be almost over when the Mustangs had to punt to the Thunderbirds with under six minutes left in the game and trailing by 10. However, Park Crossing lost their 4th fumble on the night at their own 30-yard line. Seizing on the momentum change, Rines found Dalton Smith for a spectacular touchdown catch with a defender draped over him. The extra point cut the lead to 35-32 with under five minutes left to play.
The Mustangs still needed a defensive stop and it didn’t appear that they were going to be able to get it, with the Thunderbirds picking up several first downs, including one on 4th and 3, which was crucial because it then caused the Mustangs to use their remaining timeouts. On a 4th and 1 from the Stanhope Elmore 30-yard line, the shotgun snap sailed high over the head of the Thunderbird’s quarterback, and the Mustangs earned the defensive stop that they needed to stay in the ballgame.
On the final drive, the Mustangs picked up two first downs, one on a quarterback draw by Rines, and another on a draw to Duncan, which set up the final disappointing conclusion of the season when Rines fumbled the snap attempting to spike the ball to stop the clock.
In the loss, Rines was 7 for 18 passing for 123 yards and two touchdowns, along with two interceptions and two fumbles lost. Despite rushing for 77 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, in the second half, Duncan was held to 0 yards on 11 carries.
The Mustangs’ season concluded at 9-3, their highest win total since 2010. Rines passed for 12 touchdowns in his senior season and ran for another 7 scores. Meanwhile, Duncan scored 7 rushing touchdowns in 10 regular season games, and nearly totaled that in two playoff games, scoring 6 to bring his season total to 13 rushing touchdowns.
Despite the disappointing end to the season, and the high school careers of Mustangs like Duncan and Bradford on offense and Theodore Jackson and Jeremy Thompson on defense, this season can and should only be considered a huge success for bringing back a winning culture to the Stanhope Elmore High School football program.