Two longtime friends got the chance to stand on opposing sidelines in the Class 4A Division II playoffs Friday night, with one leading a school with a storied history, and the other trying to build a powerhouse.
Bobby Carroll’s York Cougars got quite the scare from David Bennett’s visiting River Bluff Gators, but scored 20 consecutive points in the third quarter and escaped with a 33-28 victory in the Cougar Den.
Though the outcome may not have been what Bennett wanted, he spoke of his team after the game, and their success in just their first year of playing varsity football. “I’m proud of these kids for having that faith in one another to never give up until the very end right there. I couldn’t be more proud of them, no matter the outcome of the game. We were down, and they never quit. They never let up. We had a chance to win the game, and that’s all you can ask.”
River Bluff (8-5) got off to a hot start, scoring on a Brandon Tillmon plunge that capped a methodical first drive. York (11-2) answered with a Deshaw Andrews keeper just over a minute later to pull within a point. The Gators found the end zone twice in the second quarter, with a Tillmon dive and a 64-yard pass to receiver Kyle Graham giving the visitors a two-score advantage late in the second quarter.
Missed opportunities told the tale of the first half for York. The Cougars intercepted two Tillmon passes and were unable to convert either chance. A 57-yard touchdown pass from Andrews to Wally Wilmore was called back due to a flag with nine minutes in the second quarter, with the Cougars having to punt on the ensuing down.
Even with those troubles, the Cougars trailed just 21-13 at the horn, as Andrews carried several River Bluff defenders into the end zone from 10 yards away. River Bluff was quite successful themselves on the ground in the first half, carrying 32 times for 189 yards.
“I knew they’d (York) be very well prepared. They’ve got some great key players in places. They made a couple of picks on us there early, but our kids, we took a couple of shots where they thought we might be running the ball, and it worked out,” said Bennett.
There would be no such missed opportunities for York in the next 12 minutes, though. After a shortened 12-minute halftime period, the Cougars struck just over two minutes into the third period. Andrews hit a streaking Shandon Cobb to pull his team within two.
“What we’ve been doing, we’ve been getting ahead in the first half and going in there at halftime and getting too relaxed. We wanted to shorten the half so we could get back out there and get started. We told our guys they were going to have to suck it up and play harder.”
After River Bluff’s first punt of the night with 7:13 to play in the quarter, Andrews found Daurice Simpson for a 71-yard strike to give the Cougars a 26-21 advantage. The Gators had to punt again on their next drive, and Simpson made them pay. Simpson fielded the Gator punt on a bounce, then took it 75 yards to the house to extend his team’s lead to 12.
“Daurice’s punt return was the prettiest I’ve seen, and we had some monster blocks on that play. It was really a team effort,” said Carroll.
River Bluff was not done, though. The Gators unleashed another methodical drive that culminated in a 1-yard plunge from running back Davon Johnson, pulling the visitors within five with 8:42 to play.
York seemed poised to score again and ice the game, but a Andrews fumble in the red zone with 2:39 to play gave Bennett’s team new life. The Gators marched down the field, aided by a pass interference penalty that kept the drive alive. River Bluff had a fourth-down play with a chance to take the lead, but Tillmon slipped to the turf before he could unload the pass to a streaking receiver. The Cougars were then able to kneel out the remaining time and secure a trip to the third round.
Carroll and Bennett spoke well of each other’s teams. “The whole game was tough. Coach Bennett’s got those kids believing. They’re real athletic. Their offensive line’s probably a little better than I thought they were. They just blocked us, man,” said Carroll of the Gators. “They got in the three-back set and just ran over us tonight. We’re lucky enough we could score with them. Just a good football game. My hat’s off to them. They played well.”
“A lot of credit to York, and a lot of credit to our kids for not quitting,” said Bennett. “These kids have learned lessons for the rest of their lives.”
The Cougars travel to fifth-seed Greenwood next Friday night to play for a trip to the Class 4A Division II championship.