By David Thackham
GREER – Catawba Ridge senior quarterback Kayden Hager said he was at a loss for words following Saturday night’s historic first playoff victory, 34-20, over Greer High School at Dooley Field.
Maybe he just needed to catch his breath after throwing for 234 yards in going 14-of-18 and running for another 143 yards to help the Copperheads to their first postseason football victory in program history.
Catawba Ridge (6-1) will move on to the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state playoffs next week and will play at Irmo High next Friday. The Irmo Yellow Jackets (6-2) defeated Westside 43-35 in their first-round playoff game Friday night.
“It’s surreal, honestly,” said Hager, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in Saturday’s win against the Greer Yellow Jackets (3-2). “All the hard work we’ve put in, it’s paying off. I’m so happy to be a part of this team… We can go all the way. The talent in this room is unbelievable.”
Running back Henry Bowen, who had eight rushes for 30 yards, also scored touchdowns from one and seven-yards out to keep the hosts at arm’s length.
The Copperheads’ defense deserves special plaudits for its play Saturday night. Head coach Zac Lendyak’s defensive line kept Greer quarterback Darius Griffin off his rhythm all night. The Copperheads earned four interceptions and two sacks, including two picks by wide receiver/defensive back Jacobie Henderson.
The Yellow Jackets’ usual starting quarterback Hollis Crosby was not listed on the starting lineup. Greer hadn’t played a game since Oct. 23 when the final two regular season games had been cancelled.
“This means a lot,” Henderson said. “Everybody doubts us, looks down on us, so we play with a chip on our shoulders. To see these boys smiling, I know how hard they work. We play with swag, man. We’ve got juice. Anything we can put our minds to, we can achieve.”
Catawba Ridge got off to a hot start to open the contest. On the Copperheads’ first offensive drive, Hager found wide receiver Quinten Jackson, who had 151 yards on eight receptions, for a long bomb downfield on third and 10. Jackson snagged the ball on the Greer 30, then outstepped his defender to finish off a 72-yard score.
The Copperheads doubled their advantage on the next drive. Catawba Ridge started on the Greer 26-yard line, following a late Greer tackle defending their own punt. Bowen was able to scamper into the end zone from just a yard out to make it 14-0 just a few plays later.
Lendyak even had the chance to bring back Jadyn Davis, Catawba Ridge’s star freshman quarterback, for several snaps in the first half. Davis has been given the all-clear to play after several weeks recovering from a broken collarbone in early October.
But special teams snafus dogged the Copperheads in the first half. On a three-and-out near the end of the first quarter, a snap to punter Ayden McCarter sailed far over the senior’s head. McCarter quickly booted the ball out of bounds, but the play was ruled to be a safety.
On Greer’s ensuing drive, Griffin was able to push his team downfield to set up an Elijah Honeycutt field goal from 35-yards out midway through the second quarter.
And when Catawba Ridge was unable to answer on the next Copperheads’ drive, they were forced to punt again. But again, the snap went high above McCarter’s head, and he was forced to smother the ball in his own end zone for another safety, cutting the Catawba Ridge lead to 14-7.
A defensive play finally gave Catawba Ridge renewed life. Griffin and company drove from their own 47 to the Catawba Ridge 10 with less than two minutes left in the half. With Griffin roaming outside of his pocket, Henderson stepped up to make a big interception and give the Copperheads one last possession in the first half.
“We always talk about turnovers winning and losing games,” Lendyak said. “They did it more than we did tonight. It was important to give the offense the opportunities they did.”
Hager made a surprise pass to Bowen down the sideline for an 18-yard gain to get his team inside Greer territory, then threw a 34-yard spiral to Jackson as he beat his defender on a go-route and dashed into the end zone untouched.
The Copperheads entered the halftime break with a 20-7 lead.
“Momentum was a big key factor,” Hager said. “We knew we couldn’t let them get rolling or clicking. We knew that once we had the momentum, we wouldn’t let them have it back.”
Catawba Ridge was just as hot to start the second half as they were in the first half. Easton Yancey picked off Griffin on the Yellow Jackets’ opening drive of the third quarter, and Bowen was able to score from seven yards out just two plays later.
Down by 20 points, the Greer offense had to play high-risk, high-reward with its passing game. Griffin was able to find Miller DeArmond for a 42-yard score with 2:26 left in the third quarter to cut the lead to 27-14.
But a similar downfield heave on the Yellow Jackets’ next possession in the fourth quarter was too easy for Henderson on defense.
“Coach said ‘Get one out there,’ and I got him two,” Henderson said. “I had to overdo it.”
Hager was a threat on the ground all game long. With seven minutes left to play, he somehow was able to turn a fourth-and-one conversion attempt into a 42-yard touchdown as Catawba Ridge regained its 20-point lead.
“It was just a quarterback sneak to get the first down,” Hager said. “I kept pushing, turning my legs. I felt I was free, and I just took off.”
EJ Bradford scored a late one-yard touchdown on Greer’s final drive of its season after Griffin found DeArmond on a long pass. But the ensuing onside kick didn’t go the requisite 10-yards, and Catawba Ridge ran out the clock.
The win was Catawba Ridge’s sixth straight victory of the season. The Copperheads are now entering the state quarterfinals after winning just two games in the program’s inaugural season last year.
Lendyak said his team hasn’t looked too far ahead, and is focusing on one day at a time. He said the team will likely start scouting Irmo on the bus ride home.
“I can’t put it into words what these guys mean to me,” he said. “I know it’s just one game, but to give these seniors at least one more week, I’m so proud of them.”
Catawba Ridge 34, Greer 20
CR – Quinten Jackson 72-yard receiving touchdown from Kayden Hager, 9:42
CR – Henry Bowen one-yard rushing touchdown, 5:30
G – Safety for Greer, 43.5 seconds
G – Elijah Honeycutt 35-yard field goal, 7:41
G – Safety for Greer, 6:00
CR – Jackson 34-yard receiving touchdown from Hager, 30.2 seconds
CR – Henry Bowen seven-yard rushing touchdown, 9:15
G – Miller DeArmond 42-yard receiving touchdown from Darius Griffin, 2:26
CR –Hager 42-yard rushing touchdown, 7:39
G – EJ Bradford one-yard rushing touchdown, 2:42