by Joseph W. Gex II, Contributing Writer
In a team game such as football, it is often said that one player can’t win or lose a game. Well, after witnessing what happened Friday night ‘between the walls’ I believe I may have to argue that sentiment.
The Saint Stanislaus Rock-A-Chaws entered the game as the #1-seed and division champion from Division 8-3A while Crystal Springs was the #4-seed. The Tigers (3-7) came to play and prove a point which they did, emphatically.
Both teams punted the ball away on their first possession of the game. When Crystal Springs got the ball for their second possession at their own 15-yard line, they put together a six-play drive that resulted in a 30-yard scoring pass from Zabauri Chandler to Marquavion Pendleton with 2:39 left in the first quarter. On the PAT, Rock defensive lineman Jacob Bradford bullied his way through to block the kick keeping the score 6-0.
The Rocks answered the Tigers’ call with a three-play drive that started at their own 42-yard line after a John Scott Stassi 22-yard return.
Ian Gonzalez Rioz called his number and ripped off 21 yards. After a two-yard loss on the next play, Rioz dropped back and hooked up with Isaiah Haynes for a 39-yard scoring strike with 1:27 left in the opening quarter. Evan Noel converted the PAT to make the score 7-6.
On the Rocks next drive, SSC pushed the ball inside the Tigers’ 15-yard line but were intercepted in the endzone to stall the drive.
The Tigers were not able to capitalize on the turnover and had to punt away.
The Rocks (9-1) took over on their own 23-yard line. Rioz again kept the ball for a 49-yard slashing gain. Two plays later, Rioz followed that gain with another 23 yards down to the Tiger 7-yard line. Two plays later, Rioz scored from five yards out with 19 seconds left in the first half. Noel converted on the PAT to give the Rocks a 14-6 lead at halftime.
Neither team could find the end-zone in the third quarter.
Early in the final frame, the Tigers scored on a one-yard dive from Xavier Buie with 11:54 remaining in the game. The two-point conversion failed leaving the score 14-12.
Each team again punted the ball away on the next two possessions. The Rocks took over near midfield and put together a seven-play drive that was highlighted by a Rioz-to-Levi Green pitch-and-catch for 28 yards down to the Tiger 15-yard line.
Three plays later, Noel converted on a 32-yard field goal with 1:53 left to play in the game to make the score 17-14.
But here is where it gets interesting.
Noel kicked his fourth touchback of the game forcing the Tigers to start at their own 20-yard line. Methodically, the Tigers picked apart the Rock pass defense with an occasional run by Chandler as they marched down the field on a 10-play drive.
With 7 seconds left on the clock, Chandler connected with Buie on a 21-yard scoring toss in the far southwest corner of the endzone. This was the same place that a pass was thrown in 2013 when the Forrest County AHS Aggies dispatched the Rocks from the Class 4A state playoffs in the third round. Pendleton converted on the two-point conversion to make the score 20-17 with just seven seconds on the clock.
Everyone in the stadium was hoping for a quick but decent return and call a timeout to let the strong-legged five-star Noel take a shot at a forever field goal attempt. However, on the return special teams coordinator Seth Rugg, who played on that Forrest County AHS team in 2013, slipped Rioz onto the field in the mid-level.
The Tigers kicker changed directions twice before he was ready to kick followed by SSC moving the elusive Rioz twice, as well, before placing him in the middle of the field. Zaccheaus Powe booted a sky-kick that remained in the center of the field and Rioz fielded the kick at the 28-yard line. Slashing his way forward he was lost in a midst of would-be tacklers near midfield as time expired on the clock. Then, Rioz emerged juking his way to the visitor sideline free as a bird and turned toward the east wall and St. Mary’s cemetery as he outraced the Crystal Springs defenders to the endzone on a 72-yard return.
Crystal Springs was in shock and this sportswriter was in absolute awe while pandemonium ensued on the Rocks sideline and stands.
I have witnessed several wins coming on touchdown passes in the waning moments of the game or by a defensive stand in the final minute by virtue of a stop or an interception. I have watched a victory coming on a 49-yard field goal off the foot of Charlie Reymond over the #9-ranked Petal Panthers in 1999. But honestly, Friday night’s kickoff return for a touchdown as the clock ticked down to 0:00 was a first for me, as I am sure for just about everyone on both sides of the stadium.
An emotionally weary SSC head coach Tim Lala commented, “Grit, Excellence, and Fight is how I can describe this team tonight. This is a lot to process in a short time. We knew that Crystal Springs would bring their best tonight and they did. We saw them get a little worn down toward the end of the first half but knew they would come out refreshed in the second half. They came out and took it to us and we met them at every stop. They took the lead with not much time left and I wish I had the words to do justice for what Ian (Gonzalez Rioz) did out there, but I don’t. Hopefully, this redirects our focus as to how we have to prepare and play this next game. There will be step up in competition when Noxubee County arrives next week. It is a team that we have played before but have not finished with good feelings. We have to prepare mentally and physically for what they bring to the field and prepare to play our best game.”
On offense SSC was led by Rioz who rushed 15 times for 185 yards and a touchdown and threw for 128 yards and a touchdown on 11-for-14 passing. Isaiah Haynes caught three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown. On defense, the Rocks were paced by Bradford with 9 tackles including 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 hurries and a blocked PAT. Spencer Cornell added 12 tackles.
And, yes, one player can determine a game such as football. I witnessed it on Friday night along with everyone else in the stadium.
The Rocks have played Noxubee County twice before in the Class 4A state finals in 2014 and 2015 suffering defeat in both games.
Kickoff for the second-round playoff game against Noxubee County ‘between the walls’ is set for tonight at 7 p.m.