Senior running back Tyler Jones rushed for more than 170 yards and two touchdowns to help Catawba Ridge Copperheads score 24 unanswered points in the final 18 minutes of Friday night’s come-from-behind 45-27 win over the Chester Cyclones.
Meanwhile, the Copperheads’ defense came up clutch when it needed to most. Catawba Ridge, now 5-0 on the season, secured three crucial interceptions, and earned a scoop-and-score fumble recovery to complement a first-half kickoff recovery touchdown.
Heading into the fourth quarter, down by six, Jones said he and his offensive line knew it was time to “lock in.”
“We had to put the game on our backs,” he said. “This is what we practiced for all summer. All the lifts, all the conditioning. This was the first time this season we’ve had some real adversity. It was a test, and we passed that test.”
Catawba Ridge put points on the board early in the first quarter, thanks to its defense.
Defensive back Jordan Gilliam stepped in front of a Trooper Floyd pass on Chester’s first drive to give the home team the ball inside enemy territory.
Running back Ira Mister ripped off a 16-yard rush through the middle, then scored from eight yards out on the very next play to give Catawba Ridge a 7-0 lead.
“Our defense was really strong,” Gilliam said. “When the defense does what it needs to do, and it turns into points, that’s gonna be a big help.”
But the Cyclones responded immediately on special teams. Andre Evans secured the ensuing kickoff on Chester’s eight and shrugged off tacklers for a 92-yard recovery touchdown to make it 7-7 with 7:23 left in the first quarter.
A few drives later, Catawba Ridge’s Evan Hamilton was the next Copperhead to step up on defense. On third and 15, Floyd found receiver Kyan Kennedy, but Kennedy fumbled the ball, allowing Hamilton to take advantage and dash 30 yards the other way for a scoop-and-score to give Catawba Ridge a 14-7 lead.
By that time, Floyd had settled down and began delivering passes to Reggie Heath, the state’s leader in receiving yards heading into the matchup.
Floyd drove the Cyclones from their own 40 to the Catawba Ridge 21, where he found Heath for a 15-yard pass. That allowed running back Shydiem McCullough the space to scamper in from seven yards out to finish off an eight-play drive that lasted more than four minutes.
Leading 14-13 after a missed Chester PAT, Gilliam took charge on the next play. He picked up the ensuing Chester kickoff, found a seam on the right edge and ran it all the way back the other way for a dazzling kickoff return touchdown of his own. Kohen Kozel’s PAT gave Catawba Ridge a 21-13 lead.
Gilliam said the team reviewed kickoff returns all week in practice.
“It was a big rush of excitement,” he said.
It appeared Catawba Ridge might take that lead into the halftime break, but a penalty gave Chester renewed life.
On fourth and four of the next Cyclones’ possession, a Catawba Ridge defender was flagged for running into the Chester punter, and the Cyclones picked up a fresh set of downs.
Floyd took advantage, finding Heath for 35 yards to push Chester down to the Copperheads’ 20-yard line, then went back to Heath, who snagged a 20-yard touchdown catch in the far edge of the end zone. Ju’Quan Carter bulldozed his way in for a 2-point conversion to make it 21-21 with just a few seconds left in the half. Heath finished the game with 121 yards on eight receptions.
“We gave up more than we wanted to tonight,” said Catawba Ridge coach Zac Lendyak. “I think they learned they need to focus more on the assignment football. But when you get points from the defensive end like that and win the turnover battle, that’s big.”
After trailing for the first half, Chester finally took the lead on its first drive coming out of the halftime break. The Cyclones took over on their own 33 and took advantage of back-to-back Catawba Ridge penalties to reach Copperhead territory.
Evans picked up rushes of five and seven yards before finding paydirt from 24 yards out. He broke a tackle, cut to the outside, and reached into the end zone to give the visitors a 27-21 margin.
Backup quarterback DJ Latimer replaced Nate Thomas under center, offering a fresh rushing attack.
After driving from Catawba Ridge’s 30 to inside the Chester red zone, Kozel cut the lead to 27-24 with a 33-yard field goal.
Again, Floyd helped Chester reach the Catawba Ridge 36 late in the third, but on a crucial fourth and long, Grant Lovette picked off Floyd’s attempted pass to Heath, allowing the Copperheads to pick up the ball with momentum.
Jones showed off his strength heading into the fourth quarter on the following drive, scoring from four yards with 11 minutes to play in the fourth quarter to help the Copperheads take the lead.
After a Chester punt, Latimer took over on the Chester 26 and burst into the end zone himself from 20 yards to push the lead to 38-27. In his two quarters of play, Latimer earned 81 yards on seven carries.
“(Latimer’s) explosive,” Jones said. “He’s a dual threat. He was nervous at first, but when he got those first snaps in, and he got the first hit, you could tell he felt comfortable on the field. I love playing next to him.”
And Jones secured the win with his second touchdown, this time from seven yards out, after Catawba Ridge’s defense forced another Chester 3-and-out with back-to-back tackles for loss. Kozel’s kick pushed the lead to 45-27 with about five minutes to play.
Donnell Williamson snagged one final interception on a Floyd Hail Mary play with less than 90 seconds to play.
“Credit to the offensive line, I don’t think we had more than six or seven passes all night long,” Lendyak said. “It’s a good night for Tyler, a good night for the offensive line, and a good night for Catawba Ridge.”
Catawba Ridge has gone unbeaten in the non-region slate, and now will enjoy a bye week before taking on South Pointe on Sept. 30 in the first game of the Region 3-4A schedule.
Tyler Fikis, who began the season as Catawba Ridge’s starting quarterback, is still recovering from a right ankle injury. Lendyak said the team will monitor Fikis until the senior is fully healthy.