Oct. 23—The lesson learned for Red Bank's football team is as old as the game itself: It's not how you start, it's how strong you finish. Lions coach Chris Brown has been preaching it since his squad opened the season with three losses in four games, including two against team in large classifications.
Friday night the Lions saw for themselves the reality of what their coach has reminded them of since that wobbly start.
Red Bank held off a late East Hamilton rally to earn a thrilling 21-20 Region 3-4A win at home that created a three-way tie atop the league standings — Red Bank, East Hamilton and Central all with one region loss — going into the final week of the regular season.
Should the Lions take care of business against winless Sequoyah next week, regardless of what the other two region co-leaders do, they will earn the top seed for the state playoffs.
"I think it was important for us to remind everyone that we are a team to be reckoned with," said Brown, whose team has won three straight meetings with the Hurricanes by a combined 11 points. "We knew when we made the schedule the way we did that we would have to play really good early with some inexperienced guys. We as a staff had to make sure we were developing those guys and not getting down on them when we struggled early.
"This just shows the commitment of our kids to what we've been working toward. We've gotten better every single week. We weren't perfect, but we made the plays we needed to."
The Lions (5-3, 4-1) opened the game with a tone-setting drive in which they ran the ball on nine of 10 snaps, covering 75 yards with senior quarterback Joseph Blackmon breaking free from a possible sack, then zig-zagging his way through the Hurricanes' defense for a 19-yard touchdown run.
Red Bank followed that with a 78-yard scoring drive in which it never faced a third down, and again it was Blackmon who capped the possession with a 9-yard keeper for his second touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
At that point the Lions had held possession for 17 of the game's first 20 plays, but East Hamilton (7-2, 4-1) countered with a 16-play, 70-yard drive — converting three fourth downs — with Juan Bullard scoring on a 4-yard run.
But the Hurricanes missed the extra-point attempt, and although Red Bank threatened to extend its lead, it remained 14-6 at halftime.
The teams traded touchdowns early in the third quarter, Red Bank scoring first on a 23-yard strike from Blackmon to Tyler Wright to pull ahead 21-6 and East Hamilton answering with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that Bullard capped with a 2-yard dive into the end zone. On that possession, the Hurricanes moved receiver Jeremiah Flemmons to quarterback to give them two running threats out of the backfield, and although they failed on their 2-point conversion attempt, leaving them trailing 21-12, it was a move they stuck with until their final possession.
After Ethan Beckwith grabbed his second interception of the night, stopping a Red Bank drive in Hurricanes territory, Flemmons' spark out of the backfield produced another scoring drive. After back-to-back keepers by Flemmons, he pulled up and lofted a pass that hit Kaunyae Burgans in stride for a 45-yard score midway through the fourth quarter, then added the conversion run to close the gap to one point.
But after holding Red Bank on downs at its 31 with 2:50 remaining, East Hamilton failed to move the ball and the Lions were able to run out the clock after regaining possession.
"That first drive was big to push the ball downfield on them and score," said Lions running back AD Crutcher, who finished with 21 carries for 122 yards. "We had to get on top of them early. That gave us a lot of confidence. From where we started the season from to now, we feel like we're a different team."
Red Bank outgained the Hurricanes 400-263 in total offense, rushing for 258 of those yards while Blackmon completed 10 of 19 passes for 142 and accounted for all three touchdowns. Bullard ran for 98 yards on 27 carries to lead East Hamiton, which ends its regular season against Hixson.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.