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By RUSSELL TURNER
Midway through the first half of Friday’s matchup at Quitman, the GCHS Wildcats looked like the same team that had struggled mightily over the past couple of weeks en route to an 0-3 start to the season.
The Wildcat offense had squandered two early scoring opportunities with turnovers and the GCHS defense was fighting to keep the Cats in the game. But then, everything changed.
An interception by senior Malachi Graham provided a bit of a boost. But, the 14-play, 65-yard scoring drive that followed changed everything and brought out the confidence and swagger the Wildcats hadn’t felt in a while. The end result was a 25-6 victory over the Panthers and a shot in the arm for the Wildcat faithful.
“The effort on our side was very good,” GCHS Head Coach Mike King said. “Our guys wanted it more than the other team and I was so pleased with that.”
“You don’t always expect that out of an 0-3 team, but our guys still believe in what we are doing and what we can accomplish this season.”
Senior quarterback Drake Henderson entered the game after Graham’s interception and orchestrated the Wildcats’ first scoring drive since the first quarter of the season opener at Biloxi. Henderson’s first possession as the Wildcat signal caller this season ended with a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Jashon McGee, and along with Conner West’s PAT, gave Greene County a 7-0 lead with 3:55 left in the first half.
The Wildcats extended the lead to 13-0 early in the second half. The Panthers failed to cover a squibbed kick to start the third quarter and a heads-up play by Dre’ Grice gave GCHS the ball at the Quitman 39. Three plays later, Henderson broke free on a quarterback keeper and scrambled 31 yards for a TD. The PAT was blocked, but the visitors held a 13-0 lead with 10:37 remaining on the third quarter clock.
Quitman answered with its best drive of the night. Senior quarterback Jed Lewis avoided pressure in the backfield and broke free for a 1-yard TD run to cap the 11-play, 67-yard march. The PAT was no good, but the Panthers had closed the gap to 13-6 with 5:21 left in the third quarter.
That was as close as they would get.
A big kick return on the ensuing kickoff by freshman K.J. Miller put Henderson and company in business at the Panther 36. A few plays later Henderson connected with senior Anthony Calhoun for a 5-yard TD pass to push the lead to 19-6 with 2:22 left in the third quarter. After a big defensive stand, the Wildcat offense marched 63 yards on 12 plays to put the game away. A couple of nice runs by Calhoun were keys to the drive, but it was Henderson’s 1-yard plunge for a TD that sealed the drive. The Cats came up short on a 2-point-conversion try, but had taken control of the game with 8:55 remaining on the clock.
Two strong defensive stands and Graham’s second interception of the night sealed the win for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats, who continue to be plagued by injuries, once again saw several new faces come up big in the win.
“I am very excited that we have younger guys that have stepped up when their numbers are called and have made plays that we as coaches knew they could make,” King said. “And, Drake (Henderson) played about as well at quarterback as anyone I have seen with the limited number of practice reps he had taken.”
While the Wildcats did suffer two early turnovers to kill promising drives they limited the self-inflicted wounds (penalties, negative plays, etc.) that had plagued them the first three weeks of the season. They also were blessed with pretty good field position throughout the game, thanks to some nice defensive work and a couple of big plays on special teams.
They also got things going in the running game for the first time in a couple of weeks.
“All three guys that we counted on to carry the football (freshman K.J. Miller, sophomore Dallarrus Cooper and senior Anthony Calhoun) did a great job for us,” King added. “And, the offensive line had one of their best games of the year.”
Henderson finished with solid numbers in the passing game, completing 8-of-10 passes for 105 yards and two TDs. Sophomore Conner West, who earned the start, completed 1-of-5 passes for 54 yards, but was hit for the two interceptions.
Calhoun led GCHS receivers with 86 yards, while McGee had 53 yards and Miller added 20. The three receivers had three catches apiece in the win.
Henderson also accounted for two touchdowns on the ground and 28 total yards on nine carries. Calhoun led GCHS with 58 yards on 12 carries, while sophomore Dallarus Cooper added 40 yards and 10 carries and Miller had 37 yards on nine carries. Miller also had 115 yards on two kick returns.
Defensively, the Wildcats continued to look impressive, despite once again being shorthanded due to injuries. The Wildcat defense held a very gifted Panther offense to just 165 total yards and only a couple explosive plays.
Statistically, Graham led GCHS with five tackles and two interceptions. Senior linebackers Ladon Woullard and Jaheim Cooper had eight tackles apiece, while senior safety Kade Kittrell added four. Senior Gary Hawthorn, junior De’Andre Grice and sophomores Kye Seymour and Jeremiah Cochran added three tackles each.
Gautier Gators to visit this Friday
The Wildcats will look to build upon their first win when the 5A Gautier Gators visit Wildcat Stadium this Friday for the final non-region warm-up of the season.
Gautier enters the game with a 1-2 overall record and coming off a bye week. The Gators opened the season with a 49-7 win over Vancleave, but dropped a close decision to Biloxi (20-24) and followed that up with a 14-28 loss to Hancock in a game they led by 14-0 at halftime.
Offensively, the Gators are led by freshman quarterback Kaden Irving (#2, 5-11, 180). Irving has completed 22-of-45 passes thus far for 316 yards. He has three touchdowns to his credit, but also has tossed three interceptions, including two in the loss to Hancock two weeks ago.
Senior Jordan Irving (#5, 6-0, 165) leads the Gators rushing attack with 172 yards and one TD on 26 carries. Irving also has two receiving touchdowns and 85 yards on five receptions. Drake Thornton (#45, Sr., 6-1, 215) has 87 yards and a TD on 20 carries thus far.
Senior Austin Rogers (#6, 5-11, 160) leads the Gator receivers with 97 yards on three catches. Chris Thomas (#13, Jr., 6-0, 180) has four catches for 64 yards.
Defensively, Thornton leads the way with 28 tackles for the Gators. Defensive linemen Kaleb Beavers (#95, Jr., 6-0, 229) and Malik Pierce (#99, Sr., 6-0, 270) have combined for 38 tackles.
Game time for Friday is set for 7 p.m. Fans unable to get to the game can watch the Wildcats’ live broadcast online at www.nfhsnetwork.com.