By Randy Coleman
North Jefferson News
CLEVELAND, Ala. — Locust Fork rallied from last Friday’s loss by defeating the homestanding Cleveland Panthers 29-24.
The Hornet defense came up with two big goal line stands inside the Hornet 5-yard line, one of them in the final two minutes of the game to clinch the victory.
Cleveland struck first as Panther running back Trevor Yates ran 77 yards for a touchdown midway through the first quarter. Locust Fork answered shortly thereafter, as running back Josh Tawbush ran 18 yards for a touchdown with 4:37 remaining in the opening period of play.
Cleveland quarterback Peyton Gilliland responded with a 20-yard touchdown run to put the Panthers back on top 14-7 after one quarter.
Locust Fork would do all of the scoring in the second period. Quarterback Kyle Hornbuckle found Tawbush for a 23-yard scoring pass, but Hornbuckle’s point after was blocked, leaving the Panthers up 14-13.
But the Hornet defense, led by Isaiah Kirkley, Moses Mercado, and Joey Robinette, held the Panthers in check on the next possession. That gave the Hornet offense an opportunity to move close enough for Hornbuckle to kick a 43-yard field goal. The Hornets led 16-14 at halftime.
(Hornbuckle's field goal was unofficially the longest in Locust Fork football history, pending a closer check of the record book.)
In the third period, Panther kicker Leon Doelle kicked a 22-yard field goal to put Cleveland ahead at 17-16 with 8:44 left in the quarter.
But it only took 15 seconds for the Hornets to retake the lead, as Tawbush took the ensuing Panther kickoff and returned it 88 yards for a touchdown. Hornbuckle missed the extra point, but the Hornets had the lead at 22-17.
Cleveland then drove to a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line but the Hornet defense hunkered down, and facing a fourth-and-goal from the 1, Panther running back Yates was knocked down for no gain by the combo of Hunter Gilliland and Dustin McCay to end the threat.
Early in the fourth quarter, Locust Fork extended their lead as Hornbuckle hooked up with Tawbush for a 46-yard touchdown with 11:25 left in the game.
The Panthers were down but not out, as they took the kickoff and marched to a touchdown. Gilliland found receiver Kyle Blackwood for a 20-yard scoring pass a with 8:11 left in the game.
After stopping the Hornet offense, Cleveland drove to a first-and-goal from the Locust Fork 6-yard line, but a false start penalty moved them back five yards. Three running plays left the Panthers facing fourth and goal from the 2 with 1:22 left in the contest. Gilliland tried to run the ball, but slipped as Hornet defenders converged on him forcing a 2-yard loss and a turnover on downs.
Locust Fork tried to run out the clock, but the Panthers used their time outs wisely and had the Hornets facing fourth and one at their own 13-yard line with 21 seconds to go. The Hornets lined up as if they were going to go for the first down instead of punting, and with Hornbuckle using a hard snap count, they managed to get Cleveland to jump offside which gave Locust Fork the first down and the game.
Tawbush (92 yards) and Micah Stephens (75 yards) shouldered most of the Hornet running game with each getting 10 carries. Hornbuckle finished the night completing 7-of-15 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Defensively, Robinette led the way with 11 tackles while Isaiah Kirkley added nine. Shiloh Biles and Nick Long had eight stops each.
The win gave the Hornets (6-4) their first winning season since 2002, and made coach Chris Musso the first Locust Fork head football coach to finish his first season as head coach with a winning record since Gary Pate’s team went 10-2 in his first season way back in 1974. It was also the Hornets' third consecutive victory over Cleveland (5-5).