ASHLAND The offense secured a first down with a minute remaining in the second quarter. It was the first time Ashland moved the sticks on Friday night.
The Tomcats were still searching for a spark after halftime. With a team that possesses so many electric playmakers, it doesn’t take long to flip the switch.
Ashland took the second-half kickoff and initiated its longest drive of the night. Hunter Gillum started the march with a 16-yard sprint down the sideline.
It culminated with points after Keontae Pittman flipped the reverse pitch to JT Garrett. The elusive senior maneuvered around a defender and crossed the goal line with the winning score in a 10-7 victory over Russell at Putnam Stadium.
The win secured the Class 3A, District 7 title for the Tomcats.
“It seemed like we didn’t have the energy we needed to play at in the first half,” Gillum said. “We came into the locker room at halftime and reviewed the first half. We got our heads on straight. We knew how we could play. We had to put in the work and that is what we did in the second half.”
With so many weapons on the field, coach Tony Love and offensive coordinator Colt Phelps have enjoyed expanding the playbook. It was the 12th postseason win for Love, the most in school history.
“We had to invent those plays in our playbook because for seven years I didn’t have them,” Love said with a grin. “Coach Phelps called that play and I saw how their defensive ends were hanging loose. They were looking for a reverse but JT did a fantastic job of just being an athlete. He saw the end was out wide. He planted his foot, made a couple players miss and got in the end zone.”
Russell (7-3) moved the ball into Ashland territory on two early drives but turned the ball over on downs after the drive stalled. The Red Devils forced three-and-outs on the Tomcats’ first four possessions as the team was determined to flip the script after a 41-7 defeat in Putnam Stadium during the regular season.
“We talked all week that we wanted to come out and fight for 48 minutes,” Russell coach T.J. Maynard said. “I thought our guys did that. I am proud of them for that. Ashland is a good football team. They are well-coached. We had some chances but we missed a couple of plays. That’s why you play the game. I am so proud of their effort and the way they approached the game.”
Ashland (8-0) turned to its defense to ignite some momentum. Kolby Coburn snatched an interception at the line of scrimmage and returned it to the Russell 23-yard line midway through the second stanza.
The takeaway set up a 33-yard field goal for SJ Lycans to give the Tomcats an early 3-0 lead.
“That is what you get when you have the talent that our kids possess,” Love said. “They are always one play away from going to the house and other teams know that. Sooner or later, you keep getting the ball in the playmakers’ hands and they will make something happen.”
Russell answered right back and marched down the field. Ethan Oborne opened the Red Devils drive with a 10-yard run. Charlie Jachimczuk found a wide-open AJ Raybourn for a long completion a few plays later and Nathan Conley answered with a determined run inside the red zone.
Jachimczuk took the next snap and was flushed out of the pocket. He sent the ball skyward and Carson Patrick jumped over two defenders to corral the pass for the first touchdown of the game.
“We were a lot more physical than the first time that we played them, especially up front on the offensive line,” Maynard said. “We knew that we had to get better if we were going to win this game. We did that but we came up a little short.”
The Red Devils mounted a promising drive in the second half that extended into the fourth quarter. It recorded 16 plays but Gillum stepped in front of the potential go-ahead score in the end zone and the interception extinguished the threat.
“They just ran that play,” Gillum said. “I guess they saw an open look there. We talked it out on the field. When we saw the play open up, I saw the quarterback eyes. I went to the middle and that is where he threw it.”
Added Love about Gillum: “He is such a leader out there. You can hear him talking to the other guys and imposing his attitude and his assertiveness. There are several of those guys out there.”
Ashland advances to host Fleming County on Friday. The Tomcats have now outscored their opponents 327-42 this season but got their first taste of late-game adversity against Russell.
“I was proud of them,” Love said. “We stayed in the fight. We talked about it all week long and I put it up on the board in the locker room. It’s about leadership and overcoming adversity. They did that. They knew there was a lot of the line.”
“Our defense was just incredible tonight,” he continued. “Facing an offense like that, we knew that they were good. They are very well-balanced. With our defensive guys, I watched them in practice (on Thursday). They communicated so well. They were calling everything out. You could see it out on the field. We were at the point of attack.”
Russell loses an experienced group of seniors that have left an indelible impression on the program and their coach.
“Those kids played a lot of football over their four-year career,” Maynard said. “They are a great group of kids to coach. I think as you get older and you’ve been in this profession, you appreciate the kids more.”
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RUSSELL 0 7 0 0 — 7
ASHLAND 0 3 7 0 — 10
A—SJ Lycans 33 field goal 3:50
R—Carson Patrick 13 pass from Charlie Jachimczuk
A—JT Garrett 11 run 8:13
First Downs 14 9
Rushes-Yards 33-122 30-93
Comp-Att-Int 12-19-2 8-9-0
Passing Yards 89 96
Penalties-Yards 1-15 4-30
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 0-0
Punts-Avg. 3-41.0 5-38.6
Russell rushing: Conley 14-49, E. Oborne 9-26, Jachimczuk 8-42, Sharp 2-5.
Ashland rushing: Pittman 16-60, Garrett 3-1, Tackett 1-(-1), Mullins 7-16, Gilliam 3-17.
Russell passing: Jachimczuk 12 of 19 for 89 yards.
Ashland passing: Mullins 8 of 9 for 96 yards.
Russell receiving: Patrick 4-28, Lykins 4-26, D. Oborne 1-5, Martin 2-12, Raybourn 1-18.
Ashland receiving: Garrett 5-51, Alley 2-9, Gillam 1-36.