Finish Strong is more than just a feel good catchphrase for the Ouachita Christian Eagles. It’s a commitment.
Down 33-13 at halftime, the Eagles rode a strong finish to a stunning 49-47 Division IV quarterfinal playoff victory over previously unbeaten Calvary Baptist on Friday night in Shreveport.
“The Lord has blessed us with some great kids,” OCS coach Steven Fitzhugh said Saturday morning. “They are a close-knit and resilient group. They never hit the panic button. The coaches made some good adjustments. Everybody worked together.
“This was a huge win for us. Our guys never quit.”
Trailing 47-40, OCS made a critical defensive stop midway through the fourth quarter. Back-to-back sacks by Grant Mashaw and Christian Gray brought up fourth-and-18 from the 20, but Jordan Wallace flipped the field position with a 60-yard punt that rolled dead at the OCS 20.
On fourth-and less than one, quarterback Hunter Herring powered through the pile for a nine-yard gain.
“Hunter Herring was fabulous,” coach Fitzhugh said. “He made so many plays when we were in a bind.”
Will Fitzhugh picked up 11 yards on two carries for another first down at the 49 as the clock ticked to under three minutes.
OCS, which had been victimized by big plays throughout the night, struck for a big play of its own with the season hanging in the balance. Herring connected with Eli Extine, who blazed into the end zone untouched for a game-tying 51-yard touchdown.
Will Fitzhugh’s 2-point conversion run gave the Eagles their first lead, 49-47, with 2:42 remaining.
As is often the case, one of the biggest plays of the game won’t show up in the box score.
Christopher Holyfield’s ensuing kickoff drifted out of bounds. Rather than taking the ball at the 35, the Cavaliers opted to make the Eagles re-kick.
“I told Chris to pin it deep. If it goes out of bounds, that’s okay,” coach FItzhugh said. “They said, ‘This is what we do,’ and made us re-kick.”
Kicking the ball to the dangerous Isaiah Brown was a risk coach Fitzhugh was willing to take over kicking short and conceding field position.
On the second kickoff, Julian Stephenson dislodged the ball on the return, and Walker Morris made the recovery for the Eagles at the 32.
“Julian is one of the littlest guys on the team, but he has a big heart,” coach Fitzhugh said. “He squared up with Isaiah Brown back in the (preseason) scrimmage, and he did the same thing on the kickoff return Friday night, and was able to pull the ball loose.”
OCS still needed a first down to run out the clock. After burning their final timeout with 1:11 remaining, the Cavaliers jumped off sides on fourth-and-four to effectively seal the verdict.
Since losing three close games during last year’s 8-4 campaign, the Eagles have stressed finishing strong. Starting faster may be a good idea, too.
“The first quarter was as bad as I could have possibly imagined,” coach Fitzhugh said. “We scrimmaged them three months to the day on August 22, and they beat us by five touchdowns on the varsity level. Again, they big-played us, but we had defensive ends playing in the secondary then. I felt really, really good about our chances going down there.”
Friday’s start wasn’t typical for the Eagles, who outscored the opposition 156-28 through their first 11 games.
Coach Fitzhugh’s optimism would be tested right away.
Brown’s 89-yard kickoff return gave Calvary an instant 7-0 lead.
Following an empty possession by the Eagles, Jordan Wilson dashed 49 yards on a wide receiver screen to make it 13-0 just two minutes, 25 seconds into the game.
OCS moved the sticks on its second series when Herring found Kade Woods for 27 yards on third-and-19, but the drive soon stalled near midfield.
Landon Graves’ 44-yard punt backed the Cavaliers up to their own 5, and the OCS defense responded with its first stop. Mashaw stoned a third-and-two running play to force Calvary’s first punt.
Starting from its own 49, the Eagles turned the ball over two plays later on Jeremiah Brown’s interception.
Calvary would cash in with a six-play, 52-yard drive, which culminated with Hart’s 11-yard pass to Kyelor Coburn.
“We put it in the middle of the field rather than toward the sideline, and missed some tackles on the kickoff,” coach Fitzhugh said. “On their first offensive play, they take it to the house on the one play we had emphasized and worked on all week long. Then we have a drive stall and throw an interception, and it’s 20-0 at the quarter.”
OCS began to show signs of life offensively with a 10-play, 64-yard drive on its next series.
Herring kept for 13 yards on fourth-and-nine from the 26 to set up Will Fitzhugh’s 13-yard run. Samuel Harrell’s PAT reduced the deficit to 20-7 with 9:34 to play in the half.
Kael Skipper recovered an onside kick at the Calvary 47, but the Eagles were unable to move the chains.
Regaining possession at the 23 after the punt, the Cavaliers extended the lead to 26-7 on Hart’s 75-yard pass to Coburn.
Keyed by Tristan Wiley’s 17-yard reception and Dillon Dougan’s 25-yard burst, the Eagles answered seven plays later. Herring’s one-yard run capped the 60-yard drive as OCS crept within 26-13.
After a shaky start, OCS began to assert itself up front. With left tackle Garrett Folds seeing limited action due to an injury, Mashaw was joined on the offensive line by sophomores Avery Pilgreen, Andy Weatherford, James David Miller and Casey Cobb.
“We had four sophomores on the offensive line against a very good defense,” coach Fitzhugh said. “They did a great job.”
Calvary started at its own 47 after an unsuccessful onside kick.
Eight plays later, on fourth-and-12, Hart rolled to his left and found Coburn in stride from 29 yards out. Though OCS had begun to show some resistance, Coburn’s third TD reception of the half put the Cavaliers in command 33-13 with 39 seconds to play in the half.
“Our defense did fine stopping the run, but we couldn’t eliminate the big plays,” coach Fitzhugh said. “It could have been 26-20 at the half.”
OCS’ frustration would only get worse before the break.
Herring hit Will Fitzhugh for 26 yards and Extine for 10 yards, but the Eagles’ frantic efforts to reduce the deficit ended when time expired with the ball at the 1-yardline.
Receiving the second half kickoff, the Eagles wasted no time.
Facing third-and-eight on the third play from scrimmage, Herring and Wiley hooked up on a 65-yard touchdown toss to bring the Eagles within 33-21.
Calvary’s next series resulted in three straight negative plays. Ethan Hogan and Christopher Holyfield shut down consecutive rushing plays in the backfield and Mashaw broke through for a third down sack.
Taking over at their own 49 after a short punt, the Eagles proceeded to march 51 yards on five plays. Herring started the series with a 14-yard run and Will Fitzhugh carried for 29 yards to the 2.
Two snaps later, Will Fitzhugh plunged in from three yards out to bring the Eagles within 33-27 midway through the third quarter.
Calvary countered decisively as a 48-yard screen pass to Joseph Wilson led to Brown’s three-yard run, which upped Calvary’s lead to 40-27.
OCS was back on the board six plays later. Extine’s 39-yard catch set up Herring’s one-yard run to bring the visitors within 40-33 with 1:26 to play in the third quarter.
Twice converting on third down, Calvary overcame back-to-back holding penalties on its next sequence. Brown finished the nine-play, 74-yard drive with a seven-yard run as the Cavaliers expanded the margin to 47-33 with 10:15 to play.
But OCS refused to go away.
“It took our kids a little while to figure out we weren’t playing an All-American college football team,” coach Fitzhugh said. “Once our kids realized we were playing a good, good high school football team, we settled down and started doing the things we do.”
Extine’s 38-yard kickoff return gave the Eagles a short field at the 35. Herring ran it in from the 9 four plays later to bring OCS within 47-41 at the 8:32 mark.
Predictably, the OCS defense lost some battles against Calvary’s lethal offense. But the Eagles would win the war.
Calvary set up at its own 29 after the kickoff.
On second-and-eight, Hart was removed from the game by rule after losing his helmet while being sacked by Mashaw for a loss of six.
Gray’s third down sack pushed the Cavaliers back five more yards to the 20, bringing on a punting situation.
As far-fetched as it may have seemed in the first quarter, and even at halftime, OCS would get the ball back with a chance to win the game. The Eagles were about to be rewarded for all of the offseason lifts and sprints away from the limelight.
“This is why we have our conditioning program in the summer and fall,” coach Fitzhugh said. “Our guys play both ways. They believe in our conditioning program, and push themselves. The kids understand it, and see the results.”
OCS will host Metairie Park Country Day in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday (note game time).
Country Day knocked off No. 1 seed Vermilion Catholic 21-19 Friday hight.
OCS can expect another aerial assault in the semifinals from the Cajuns (6-4). Coach Fitzhugh is understandably leery of Country Day from a previous meeting.
Christian Kerut made his way into the OCS record book for most passing yards by an opponent when the 10th-seeded Cajuns topped the Eagles 42-35 in the first round of the 2015 Division III playoffs. Kerut’s 521 passing yards shattered the previous mark set by Coushatta’s LaTron Calhoun in 1999 by 100 yards.
Country Day’s current quarterback, Justin Ibieta, a 6-5, 215-pound Tulane commit, is capable of putting up ridiculous numbers as well.
“We played Country Day four years ago, and they set the school record on us for passing yardage, and they have a better quarterback this year,” coach Fitzhugh said. “(Ibieta) can run over you or throw it 60 yards into a window.”
At No. 5, OCS is the highest remaining seed in the Division IV bracket. Country Day is the No. 8 seed. In the lower half of the bracket, No. 7 Catholic-Pointe Coupee travels to No. 6 Southern Lab.
Will Fitzhugh is OCS’ new career all-purpose yardage leader. He is responsible for 6,696 all-purpose yards after finishing with 221 yards (89 rushing, 26 receiving, 106 kickoff returns) against Calvary. The senior came into the game needing just 100 yards to surpass Jermaine Sharp’s mark of 6,575 yards.
Notes: OCS snapped a three-game losing streak to Calvary. After winning the inaugural meeting 28-24 in 2005, the Cavaliers won the next three — 48-13 in 2006, 41-25 in 2009 and 38-12 in 2010. … For the season, OCS has outscored its opponents 79-46 in the fourth quarter. … OCS held a 66-40 edge in offensive plays and a 484-365 advantage in total offense. … Calvary, which came into the game averaging 9.5 yards per carry, was limited to 62 yards rushing on 22 attempts (2.8 ypc) Friday night. … Herring rushed for 100 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries. Extine caught three passes for 100 yards. … Coburn (4 receptions, 159 yards, 3 TDs) and Wilson (5-123-1) both eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark for Calvary. … Game officials were from the Lafayette Association.
By the Numbers
OCS ………………………….. CBA
24 ……….. First downs ……. 15
45-240 ….. Rushes-yards …. 22-62
244 ……… Passing yards …. 303
21-12-1 … Passes (A-C-I) …. 18-11-0
3-37.3 ….. Punts-avg. ……… 3-37.3
1-0 ……… Fumbles-lost …… 1-1
6-30 ……. Penalties-yards … 8-65
OCS ……. 0 13 20 16–-49
Calvary .. 20 13 7 7–-47
CB—Isaiah Brown 89-run (Caleb Clement kick), 11:47
CB—Jordan Wilson 49-pass from Cade Hard (kick blocked), 9:25
CB—Kyelor Coburn 11-pass from Hart (Samuel Harrell kick), 1:43
OC—Will Fitzhugh 13-run (Harrell kick), 9:34
CB—Coburn 74-pass from Hart (run failed), 6:33
OC—Hunter Herring 1-run (kick blocked), 4:04
CB-Coburn 29-pass from Hart (Clement kick), 0:39
OC—Tristan Wiley 65-pass from Herring (Kade Woods pass from Fitzhugh), 10:36
OC—Fitzhugh 3-run (Harrell kick), 6:15
CB—Brown 3-run (Clement kick), 4:41
OC—Herring 1-run (pass failed), 1:26
CB—Brown 1-run (Harrell kick), 10:15
OC—Herring 9-run (Herring run), 8:32
OC—Eli Extine 51-pass from Herring (Fitzhugh run), 2:42
RUSHING—Ouachita Christian: Herring 21-100-3, Fitzhugh 18-89-2, Dillon Dougan 6-51. Calvary Baptist: Isaiah Brown 15-54-2, Joseph Wilson 4-28.
PASSING (A-C-I-Yds-TD)—Ouachita Christian: Herring 20-12-1-244-2, Fitzhugh 1-0-0-0-0. Calvary Baptist: Hart 18-11-0-303-4.
RECEIVING—Ouachita Christian: Tristan Wiley 4-82-1, Extine 3-100-1, Fitzhugh 3-26, Woods 1-27, Landon Graves 1-9. Calvary Baptist: Wilson 5-123-1, Coburn 4-159-3, Jordan Wallace 2-21.