Leon Hart called it likely the most physical game he has been involved in during a 10-year stint as Ashland’s head coach.
On Senior Night, the Tomcats used big plays on both sides of the ball to beat Belfry 35-20 in a bruising battle at Putnam Stadium.
Ashland lost its top offensive weapon, freshman running back Quinton Baker, to a sprained foot on the first series but turned to its passing game and a relentless defense in the matchup of Top 10-ranked teams.
“It was a playoff atmosphere,” Hart said. “The intensity, emotions and physicalness were all there. That’s why we scheduled it.”
Belfry, No. 4 in Class 3A, took advantage of a 5-yard Ashland punt to close to within 21-20 with 3:37 remaining, but missed the extra-point kick.
Ashland faced third-and-five from its 34 with more than 2 1/2 minutes remaining, but Malik Massey took a handoff in the backfield and found a hole on the right side. Massey, a wideout who also played tailback Friday in Baker’s absence, pulled away from a defender and sped 66 yards to end zone.
“He was tugging on my jersey,” Massey said. “I was worried that I was not going to get the first down. Then I felt the open space. Logan (Salow) made an amazing block on the safety or I wouldn’t have been able to score.”
Massey, who also caught a 63-yard TD pass from quarterback Aaron Elam in the first half, was among 18 seniors recognized before the game.
“We felt the emotion as soon as we left the locker room and came back out on the field,” Massey said. “Everybody had tears in their eyes.”
Fittingly, the Tomcats’ defense iced the victory.
After a personal foul against Belfry backed the Pirates up to Ashland’s 47, defensive end Cade O’Bryan sacked quarterback Sani Warren as the ball came loose. Linebacker Shannon Justice scooped it up, regained his balance after a fumble, and carried the ball 36 yards for a score with 1:11 left.
“This whole season I joked with Cade that I was going to score,” Justice said. “He had two (defensive scores) in our first game, one that I helped with. This time, he caused the fumble and I picked it up.”
Justice and O’Bryan both had big nights as part of a jarring performance by the Tomcats’ defense, which allowed only 158 yards on the ground against a strong rushing attack.
Both noted Senior Night as providing extra incentive.
“We wanted to make it special,” Justice said. “There were some seniors I played my whole life with that didn’t get to play tonight.”
Fullback Cody Watts, center Drew Walters and running back Jeremy Jackson are sidelined with injuries.
O’Bryan got banged up a couple of times, one time dropping to the field and rolling over onto his back, but returned to the field both times and turned in another ferocious effort.
“We played our hearts out,” O’Bryan said. “I’m glad we could win it for the three seniors that couldn’t play tonight. It was a straight up war.”
The sixth-ranked 4A Tomcats led 21-7 at halftime and won for the seventh time in eight games. Elam threw a 15-yard pass to C.J. Johnson for the first score and Evan Yongue added a 1-yard TD run late in the half after Elam connected with Salow for 45 yards.
“In games like this, it’s a matter of who makes plays at the right time,” said veteran Belfry coach Philip Haywood. “We didn’t make plays and Ashland did. It was a physical game, a great crowd game.”