“The guy that did our devotional, he talked about staying together in the boat when the storm and rough times come,” Clay Central coach Kris Herron said.
After suffering a disastrous first half, the Vols rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to survive for another round 16-15.
Isaac Andrews provided the winning points with an 18-yard field goal with 2:55 to play, and Hillcrest’s Rajos Smith missed wide left from 40 yards with 36.3 seconds left.
Clay Central (9-2) advanced to next week’s second round game at Bibb County, which beat Ashford 20-6 on Friday.
The Vols did it against a Hillcrest team that carried a seven-game winning streak into the playoffs and had veteran coach Larry Boykin, who coached Southern Choctaw to state-final victories over Lineville in 2002 and 1999 and a loss to Clay County in 2005.
Clay Central is the 2-year-old school formed by the merger of Clay County and Lineville.
“They combined together, and they’ve got a powerhouse now,” Boykin said.
But Boykins’ gambling team delivered a powerhouse punch in the first half.
The Jaguars converted on fourth down and nine just before scoring their first touchdown, Keyshawn Roach’s 49-yard bomb to Kyantrae Lewis at 3:10 of the first quarter.
Hillcrest-Evergreen recovered a Jaylon Lyles fumble to set up Rajos Smith’s 30-yard field goal then staged a goal-line stand and huge gamble before scoring miraculous touchdown for the 15-0 lead.
Da Larrish Richardson intercepted Anthony Wood’s fourth-down-a-goal pass at the Jaguars’ 1-yard line in the waning minutes of the second quarter, and Boykin was determined to run out the clock. Ramoan King’s 3-yard run converted a fourth-and-two play from their 8-yard line.
Three plays later, Roach went right on an apparent designed run, turned back left and straddled his own goal line before throwing. Cordarius Mims caught it and ran the final 80 yards of a 94-yard touchdown play.
“That first half, we needed to forget that at halftime,” Herron said. “That was just a total nightmare on both sides of the ball.”
The Vols’ rally started with Marcus Heflin’s 42-yard run to cut the lead to 15-6 at 8:37 of the third quarter.
Two possessions later, they produced their own goal-line miracle. On third down, safety Chris Brisky stripped the ball from Mims, and Wood had recovered at the 1.
“He came around the end, and I had to find the ball,” Brisky said. “I put my hand on it a stripped it out.”
After a conduct call against Hillcrest, Lyles broke a 75-yard run to the Jaguars’ 9. Kwasi Jennings ran it in on the next play, and Andrews’ extra point brought Clay Central within 15-13 with 10:05 to play.
The two teams then exchanged three fumbles, the last recovered by Clay Central’s Nick Lett on the Vols’ 36. Clay Central needed nine plays, including seven Lyles runs, to set up Andrews’ winning field goal from the left hash mark.
“It was just like an extra point,” he said. “I practice it all the time. It was just an easy chip shot. It was kind of a difficult angle, but it’s an easy one that I make all the time.”
Still, the Vols had to withstand one last Hillcrest drive.
The Jaguars got to Clay Central’s 18 when Roach spiked the ball to stop the clock with 37.6 seconds left. A substitution penalty backed them up five yards, and Smith missed wide left.
Wood took a knee to kill the final 36.3 seconds.
Hillcrest outgained Clay Central 357 yards to 275, but Lyles got 138 of his 173 rushing yards in the second half. Add Heflin’s touchdown, Andrews’ field goal and key fumble recoveries, and Lyles had lots of help rowing the boat through the storm.
“That’s kind of what we emphasized at halftime,” Herron said. “I think it was kind of fitting.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.