LANCASTER -- Rock Hill and Lancaster entered Friday's game in desperate but similar situations. Each team entered the matchup winless in Region 3-AAAA, but both have shown flashes of quality football in their losses.
It was the Bruins who came away with the 35-24 win, sending the Bearcats back to the drawing board for the second half of region play.
Lancaster (3-5, 1-4 Region 3-AAAA) battled from behind twice, facing an early seven-point deficit and trailing by three late in the third quarter before Jonathan McGriff and Eric Buchanan sealed the win with long touchdown runs.
The Bearcats' defense, which had been stout against both the run and the pass for much of the season, struggled against Lancaster's potent running attack and intermittent passes. Buchanan and McGriff finished the game with a combined 268 yards, each crossing the goal line once.
Taniel Massey had two scoring runs and passed for another 102 to lead the Bruins' attack.
Almost as soon as the game got underway, the momentum began bouncing back and forth between the teams. Rock Hill (3-5, 0-3) took control early, intercepting Massey on the Bruins' first play from scrimmage.
The Bearcats jumped ahead four plays later on a 6-yard touchdown run by Adrian Ruffin in a play that would have counted in touch football.
Lancaster countered with a 40-yard touchdown drive of its own, set up by a big kickoff return by Tyreese Mitchell. Buchanan moved the Bruins down the field with his legs, and Massey capped the drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak for the score.
The game swayed between the teams until the waning minutes of the second quarter.
Lancaster jumped ahead late in the half, opening its playbook with an old-fashioned trick play. After taking over the ball at their own 25, the Bruins appeared content to melt down the clock and settle for a tied score at the half.
Massey had other ideas, and led Lancaster to midfield with just over a minute remaining. On a second-and-long, Massey handed the ball off to Buchanan for an apparent draw up the middle. Buchanan had rushed for more than 100 yards in the opening half.
With the Bearcat defense focused on Buchanan, the tailback tossed the ball back to Massey for the old flea-flicker play. Massey found a wide-open D.J. Cunningham streaking down the right sideline and hit him in stride for the go-ahead score.
Rock Hill responded with a 61-yard scoring drive on its opening drive of the second half with another scoring run by Ruffin. The Bearcats looked to take control, as they recovered a Bruin fumble on the ensuing kickoff, setting Rock Hill up with excellent field position.
Despite a couple of Lancaster penalties, the Bearcats could only muster a 22-yard field goal by Brandon Berger. The kick came after Rock Hill ran seven plays inside the Lancaster 10-yard line, none for the touchdown.
Trailing 28-24, many Lancaster teams of old might have folded their tents and looked toward the next game. These Bruins, led by second-year coach Bennie McMurray, rose to the challenge and dominated the final 18 minutes of the game.
The Bruins stepped up both offensively and defensively, and overcame a late fumble to ice the victory. Linebacker Marshall Craig sacked Bearcat Jujuan Crockett, inserted for the Bearcats' final three drives to aid the Bearcat passing attack. Craig's sack on Crockett came on a fourth-and-10 for the Bearcats, ending all hope for a Bearcat comeback.
"I am just really proud of these guys," McMurray said. "We are learning how to win and our guys come in expecting to win. The program here is not where we want to be, but this is a great win for us. We'll enjoy the win for the weekend then start working hard for the next one."
Rock Hill head coach Joe Montgomery faces a different set of challenges, trying to pick his young team up after losing a couple of close games where they fought hard but came up just a little short. A couple of injuries do not help either.
"We are struggling and a little banged up right now, but I could not be more pleased with our effort and how hard we are playing," Montgomery said. "It is a challenge to keep our heads up and stay focused on the next one. Hopefully, being back home next week will give us some extra motivation. We'll keep getting better and playing hard."
Rock Hill looks to gain its first region win next week, as the Fort Mill Yellow Jackets travel to District Three Stadium for a Homecoming game with the Bearcats. Lancaster travels to Clover to take on one of the top teams in the region.