Catawba Ridge’s defense rose up exactly when it needed to on Friday night.
And thanks to that dogged effort, the Copperheads will enjoy a trip to the postseason for a second straight year.
After taking a 16-13 lead over region rival Indian Land in overtime, Catawba Ridge called upon on its defense to stop a dynamic Warriors offense from getting into the end zone on fourth and goal at the Catawba Ridge 1. And somehow, when the dust cleared, the Warriors came up barely short of the goal line.
The Catawba Ridge sideline erupted. The Indian Land sideline deflated.
And with the win, the Copperheads, now 5-4 and 2-2 Region 3-4A earned their spot in the 4A state playoffs.
“When guys like this work as hard as they do, you want to see them succeed,” said Catawba Ridge coach Zac Lendyak. “We worked on that (defensive) formation all week long. They’ve got some big boys, but our guys answered the call and made the stop.”
Quarterback Nate Thomas, when 16-of-24, 131 yards and a touchdown, stepped up in the absence of his team’s regular starter, running back Tyler Jones, who ran for 118 yards, kept the offense balanced throughout the game. Kicker Kohen Kozel nailed three decisive field goals, including a 31-yarder to give Catawba Ridge the lead when it mattered most.
Every play mattered in the low-scoring, back-and-forth tussle. Especially the play that took the game to overtime in the first place.
With the game tied 13-13 and 2:28 left to play in the fourth quarter, Thomas helped drive his Copperheads team downfield from their own 15 to the Indian Land 5, giving kicker Kohen Kozel a chance with three seconds on the clock to decide the game from 22 yards out. Thomas stepped into the spotlight with Catawba Ridge’s usual starter, top-ranked quarterback Jadyn Davis, out on concussion protocol.
Thomas strung together four completions, while Jones helped push the Copperheads closer on the ground.
“He did really well,” Lendyak said. “Life as a backup isn’t always fun at times, but he comes to work every single day. He was ready to step up.”
By the time Kozel emerged for his kick, he had already completed two field goals, each from 26 yards out, to tie the ballgame. But Kozel’s kick drifted above and just to the left of the uprights, according to the referees, Lendyak said.
Lendyak said he thought the kick looked good from his vantage point.
“They said it flew directly over the goal post and they called it wide left,” he said.
But the team didn’t have time to argue the point, with an extra session of football looming.
Starting from the opposing 10-yard line, Catawba Ridge played its OT possession first, but a sack on Thomas pushed the Copperheads backwards. Kozel was called into action for the fourth time of asking, and this time, he made it count from 31 yards out.
Indian Land had its chance to tie or take the lead next. Quarterback Blake Goode found receiver Drew Hardin for a 6-yard gain and Myles Stinson got the Warriors to the 1. But when Stinson was given the ball on fourth and one to punch it into the end zone, the Copperheads came up with the crucial stop.
With two region wins, the Copperheads are guaranteed to finish above region rivals Indian Land and Lancaster, who are both winless in region play.
Catawba Ridge has now finished its regular season play and will enjoy a bye week before the playoffs start in November.
Catawba Ridge enjoyed a bright start to the game after a strong effort on special teams. The Copperheads blocked Indian Land’s first punt of the game, which was recovered on the Warriors’ 22. With favorable field position, it only took three plays before Thomas tossed a 4-yard touchdown to Jairus Frank through the middle of the end zone.
Goode showed off his arm late in the first quarter for Indian Land. He tossed a long bomb to Hardin, who did well to outmuscle a Catawba Ridge defender and sprint to the end zone for a 69-yard equalizing score with about two minutes left to play in the opening quarter.
Goode wasn’t done making plays with his arm. He led his team on a 5-minute, 13-play drive in the second quarter, converting five passes, including a 10-yard strike to Jermiah Strickland to push the lead to 13-7 after a botched PAT.
The damage could have been worse, from Catawba Ridge’s perspective. After Indian Land took the lead, the Warriors then executed and recovered an onside kick, giving the visitors another shot to score with 1:41 left to play.
Goode found Strickland for a 34-yard reception to push Indian Land inside the Catawba Ridge 2-yard line. With only 15 seconds left to play, running back Myles Stinson tried to find the end zone twice in a row, but the Copperhead defense made a goal line stand, keeping the halftime deficit to just six.
That defensive effort galvanized the team, Lendyak said.
“It was important to go into halftime and give them the message of how big that was,” Lendyak said. “We had the opportunity to go back out and put points on the board and when we did, they realized that they could get back into this.”
Catawba Ridge made drives on each of its first two possessions of the first half that allowed Kozel to kick his field goals, tying the game at 13-13.
And even after Kozel’s kick at the end of regulation was called wide left, the kicker wasn’t fazed.
“The kids absolutely love him,” Lendyak said. “After the miss, he said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry,’ but I told him, ‘You’ll get another chance,’ and he did.