LOCUST FORK — Locust Fork built early leads of 9-0 and 16-7 at home against St. Clair County, only to see the Saints march back with a strong running game and snatch away Hornet playoff hopes, thanks to a 31-24 win at Gary Pate Field.
Things looked good early for the Hornets as they took the opening kickoff, then mounted a 10-play drive that ended with a 33-yard Kyle Hornbuckle field goal with eight minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Saints quarterback Matt Hicks fumbled the snap on the first play after the kickoff, which set up the Hornets opening touchdown of the game moments later. Running back Josh Tawbush took a handoff and raced around end from 14 yards out with 6:43 still remaining in the first stanza. A bobbled snap on a fake extra point kick left the Hornets with a 9-0 lead only five minutes into the game.
It took the Saints only two minutes to respond to the Hornet score when Hicks found receiver Juan Montgomery for a 19-yard pass for a touchdown. Kicker Kylee Harrell — yes, she’s a girl — added the point after.
The Hornets would take the kickoff and move to their third score in three possessions, as fullback Shiloh Biles bulled into the end zone from two yards out on a 4th-and-goal play. Hornbuckle added the point after, and the Hornet lead was 16-7 with 11:02 remaining in the first half.
The Saints started to get their offense going, and their defense began stopping the Hornets from moving the ball. They threatened to score on three occasions before the halftime horn, but found the end zone only once.
Reserve running back Justin Brown found paydirt for St. Clair on a 12-yard run to cut the Hornet lead to 16-14 with 5:39 left before intermission.
The other two Saints possessions in the second quarter ended with Hornet interceptions. The first came on a Joey Robinette theft of a Matt Hicks pass at the Hornet goal, and the second when Chase Biles picked off a Hicks toss just before halftime at the Hornet 26.
The Saints took the second-half kickoff and moved quickly to the lead when running back Jonah Lee found a hole and raced 25 yards for a touchdown, giving the Saints had their first lead of the night at 21-16 early in the third quarter.
After holding the Hornets to a quick three downs and a punt, the Saints marched smartly into Hornet territory before stalling at the Hornet 9-yard line. But Harrell boosted the guests’ hopes by booting a 26-yard field goal with 3:52 remaining in the third quarter, which gave St. Clair County a 24-16 advantage.
The Hornet offense had done very little since the first quarter, and managed only one first down before being forced to punt. But just as it seemed Locust Fork’s hopes were dwindling away, their defense got a stop and good field position following a punt at the St. Clair 46. Moments later, facing a fourth-and-one at the 32, fullback Shiloh Biles burst through the line for what looked like a sure first down at the Saints 26. But in the ensuing pileup the football came loose and the Saints recovered, ending the Hornet threat.
Desperately needing another defensive stand, Hornet defenders Brandon Rylant, Preston Broadhead and Shiloh Biles forced another punt by St. Clair County which gave the Hornets the ball at their own 35 with only 4:17 left in the game. After losing two yards on first down, Hornbuckle dropped back to pass and found no one to throw to, but then found a running lane down the sideline and outraced two St. Clair defenders for a 67-yard scoring run.
With the deficit cut to two points at 24-22 with 3:24 remaining in regulation time, Hornet coach Chris Musso called for a 2-point conversion attempt. Hornbuckle found wide receiver Todd Goodwin in the corner of the end zone for the two points, and the game was tied at 24-24.
But St. Clair did not panic, going back to work using their bruising ground game which ended the night with 315 rushing yards on 45 attempts.
Jonah Lee scored from four yards out with only 1:12 left in the game, and with Harrell’s extra point the Saints the victory in hand.
Following the kickoff, the Hornets managed to complete passes of 24 yards to Todd Goodwin and seven yards to Brandon Rylant for a first down at the Saints 33 with only nine seconds left. After an intentional-grounding penalty pushed the Hornets back to the Saints 45 yard line with two seconds to go, Hornbuckle threw a pass to Josh Tawbush near the sideline, who then lateraled the ball to Micah Stephens on the hook-and-lateral play; Stephens tight-roped the sideline before being pushed out of bounds as time expired, only 20 yards away from a potential tying or winning score.
The teams finished almost even in total offense, with St. Clair rushing for 315 yards compared to Locust Fork’s 243. Hornbuckle was 9-for-15 in passing for 137 yards; he also led the rushing attack with 130 yards on 13 carries. Biles ran 11 times for 57 yards. Stephens led the receiving corps with 46 yards on a pair of catches.
With the victory, St. Clair County wins the third seed playoff spot from Class 4A, Region 6. As a result of the tiebreakers, the Fairview Aggies earn the fourth playoff position. Locust Fork, Fairview, and Sardis ended region play with identical 3-4 records. Since none of the three teams beat either top-seeded Oneonta or two-seed Guntersville, the next tiebreaker was based on how the three fared against the third-place Saints.
Fairview defeated St. Clair County, while both Sardis and Locust Fork lost, so the Aggies are awarded the fourth and final playoff spot.
The Hornets will close out their season next Friday by visiting their nearby Blount County rival Cleveland. The Hornets are 5-4 overall and finished with a 3-4 region record.