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Defense sparks Hawks to playoff victory

Defense sparks Hawks to playoff victory

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Take away a 79-yard touchdown play in the first quarter Friday night by Racine Case and the final team statistics between the Eagles and Indian Trail were virtually identical.

And that only makes sense, as the teams mirrored each other for most of the night.

In the end, it was Indian Trail that earned a trip to the second round with a hard-fought, 17-9 victory over Case at Jaskwhich Stadium. Indian Trail, seeded third, improved to 8-2 and advanced to face second-seeded Franklin, which beat Bradford, 42-0, Friday.

“Just to get to the postseason is never easy, and to get a win, is a treat,” Indian Trail coach Paul Hoffman said. “Like I told the kids, there’s no style points in the playoffs. We just have to be one point better. We’ll take them any way we can get them this time of year.”

Case, in the playoff field for the first time since 1997, ends its year at 4-6.

For the Eagles, it was a tough way to end the year, but coach Bryan Shredl was proud of the effort.

“Our guys are fighters,” he said. “When it comes down to it, they come every Friday ready to compete. It’s been a pleasure to coach these guys.

“... We’ve accomplished a lot with these seniors and moving forward, we have a program built. We’re looking forward and for guys to fill in.”

The game’s momentum shifted entirely early in the third quarter.

Indian Trail senior standout linebacker Connor Fahnrich recovered a Case fumble at the Eagles’ 38-yard line, but two plays later, it appeared the Eagles regained possession on an interception by JayVian Farr.

Fahnrich said the talk in the defensive huddle was to just keep battling every play.

“The key was to make sure we do our job every play, get back to the basics, the fundamentals,” he said. “We had a really good week of practice. We had a firm understanding of what we were doing. In the huddle, we (talked about) just going out there and executing.”

The pick and long return was negated, however, when Case was called for a blindside block, which instead gave Indian Trail a first down at the Eagles’ 15-yard line.

Hawks take the lead

And on the very next play, Indian Trail senior Josiah Jackson (11 carries, 42 yards) cashed in for a 15-yard touchdown run up the middle. After junior kicker Payton Metzger’s extra point, the Hawks had their first lead of the night at 10-9 with 9 minutes, 14 seconds left in the third quarter.

“We had a quick hitter (on the touchdown), and we just hit it right up the pipe,” Hoffman said. “It was a great effort to make the last three yards and get into the end zone by Josiah.”

Things got a bit interesting in the waning moments, as Indian Trail sophomore Stefon Jackson-Mitchell broke up a pass on fourth down and 22 from the Case 7-yard line with 1:04 left.

The Eagles appeared to let Jackson score two plays later with just 52.7 seconds left, and after another Metzger extra point, Indian Trail held an eight-point lead.

Had Indian Trail decided to take a knee on two straight plays, Case likely would have had just a few seconds left on the clock — but Hoffman said that scenario never was a possibility.

“How do you tell a kid not to score?” he said. “If we want to play the analytics game, get down to the 1 and take a knee (we could have), but then it’s fourth down. We just ran a regular play, and he just punched it through. We weren’t trying to make something cool happen.”

A squib kick by Indian Trail gave Case the football at its own 48-yard line, and after completions of 11 and 16 yards by quarterback Ben Brawner (11-for-18, 114 yards passing), the Eagles were within striking distance at the Hawks’ 23-yard line.

Brawner connected on a pass to Jamill Lacy, but a fumble was recovered by Indian Trail junior Andy Ramos to seal the deal and send the Hawks to the second round.

Defense delivers

The Hawks’ defense forced three turnovers and came up with a number of big plays at just the right time.

“I’m not surprised,” Hoffman said. “That’s the way they have played all year long. They’re relentless. They’re going to get after you. They just keep plugging.”

Case struck first on a 79-yard touchdown run by junior Kobe Brown with 6:30 left in the first quarter. Brown (14 carries, 116 yards) ran the play to the right side, made one cut upfield and outran the rest of the Indian Trail defense to the end zone.

“(Brown) is special,” Hoffman said. “They have three really good backs. They have (senior Myles Guyton), (Brown) and a freshman, who didn’t play because they have the two other really good kids. They have dudes. Coach Shredl and his staff do a heck of a job with those kids.”

The Eagles added to their lead on their next possession on a 20-yard field goal by junior Lamaj Muhammad. The drive was set up by a fumble recovery by senior Chris Oliver.

And that’s how the score stayed until the 5:10 mark of the second quarter when Metzger put the Hawks on the scoreboard with a 26-yard field goal.

The drive featured a heavy dose of Indian Trail sophomore running back Xavier McWhorter, who rushed eight times for 48 yards. McWhorter finished the night with 61 yards rushing on 13 carries.

Fahnrich said the thought of ending his career — and the careers of his fellow seniors — Friday night was something he didn’t want to entertain.

And now they get at least one more week.

“This is my second (playoff win) in my varsity career, and it feels awesome,” he said. “In the locker room, there were some ups and downs and emotions all over the place. I was like, ‘I cannot let this be my last game, I cannot let this happen.’”

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