It was a big night for the Johnson County Middle School football team. Having narrowly bested local rivals the Hampton Bulldogs just the week before, the two teams were back on the field for an even bigger matchup to determine the Little Watauga Conference Championship. The Longhorns had a lot on the line. Not only would the win seal the teams third championship title in four years, but would also mark the first time in nearly a decade that a Johnson County team could claim a near perfect 9-0 season.
The odds seemed to be in the Longhorns favor. Not only was the game held on familiar home turf, Johnson County was also able to claim a nearly full roster, welcoming back Bud Icenhour who had been facing a lengthy absence on the injured list. Having Bud Icenhour on the field not just affected their team, but also affected our guys, said Head Coach Matthew Bray. Hes one of their leaders and having him back made them feel more comfortable. Hes very strong on defense and on offense. I cant say enough about having him on the field in this game. It did have an effect.
Icenhour did play a strong game, coming out with a huge punt return, several strong carries, blocks, and stops, and a touchdown plus two-point conversion in the third quarter. Even more amazing, this was the first game that the eighth grader had played in for nearly two months, making an intense game that much more critical.
I was out for seven weeks with a knee injury, Icenhour said. I felt like I was under pressure because it is the first game back and the biggest game of the year, but I was ready to play and help my boys get it done. It was the most important game, and I think I did pretty good. I just try to get the ball and try to do something with it. When I get the ball in my hands its just do what I do.
Yet as strong of a performance as Bud had, he was just one part of what proved to be a pool of extremely talented athletes. Players like running back Gage Hampton and quarterback Nathan Arnold drove the offense while others including Will Kerley and Hayden Osborne shut down the Bulldogs on the defense.
We basically went back to what we do best, and thats just straight at you football, said Coach Bray. We didnt try to do finesse. We went power and it worked for us. We also made some adjustments from last weeks game and I think those paid off as well.
The duo of Arnold and Hampton worked extremely well on the carry, with Gage going on to claim well over 100 yards overall and 88 just in the second half. In fact, the Longhorns had prepared so well for Hampton that they took control of the game from the very beginning and didnt let up until the final win was theirs. Along with Gage, Kyman Matherly had an equally big night, running in Johnson Countys first touchdown of the evening late in the first quarter with two minutes still on the clock. As they did the whole game, the Longhorns opted for the two-point conversion, racking up the extra points 8-0.
The Bulldogs didnt make it to the championship without reason however, and their notorious defense began to do its part in the second quarter. The Longhorns defense proved just as tough, with Will Kerley making a big impact after landing three separate sacks on Hamptons quarterback. Regardless, both teams slugged it out up and down the field, and despite huge breakouts including a 51-yard run from Josh Herman, neither side scored again until after the half.
In the end it came down to which team had the best offensive line, and many of the boys commented on how hard they worked through the week getting ready for the game. We practiced hard for this, said Josh Herman. We watched film over and over again. We knew who to key on. It just feels good.
For Gage Hampton the difference was a slight change in strategy that ultimately proved very successful. Coach told me to try and hit the holes better, Hampton said. I always cut it out instead of drive. He told me to hit the holes harder and it ended up working. We came out ready. We were well-prepared and ready to fight.
Yet, possibly one of the best indicators of just how hard this team has worked not only for this game but throughout the season came from eighth grade quarterback Nathan Arnold who explained, We work every day. We get the wide receivers here and throw for three to four hours at a time. We worked our tails off for this game. They played well against us, but we studied harder this time around. Ending on a rivalry like that, it just puts the butter on the potato right there, the icing on the cake. Thats what happens when you got a great team of linemen like we do. Weve been told that we wouldnt have a line, but we proved it wrong. Im going to miss this.
Johnson Countys efforts shone through in the second half, as Gage Hampton secured a second touchdown to put the home team 16-0 with the conversion. That lead climbed to 24 by the beginning of the fourth quarter, but Hampton was finally able to get on the board very late in the game with their only touchdown of the night. This one drive aside, the Longhorns played a fierce defensive game that consistently kept Hampton at bay. Although size was not always on their side, Johnson County has become well known for their spirit and unbridled ferocity.
Possibly no player symbolizes that mentality better than Hayden Osborne who had a phenomenal night. People have always called me small and never thought I could play defensive line, never thought I could play left tackle, Osborne commented. Theyve just always called me small and thats what drives me. I want to prove them wrong and now Ive done that.
For others like Will Kerley the win was all about faith. Its all about speed and strength, Kerley said, But I just want to give the Lord the credit because he gave us the strength to come out here and play a wonderful game of football. We give it all to him.
In the end the Longhorns were able to pull out a huge win at 24-6, and with it sealed a memory of victory and accomplishment that no one can ever take away and that will likely live on in the memories of every player on the team. For his part, Coach Bray was ecstatic, especially considering just how far the team has come.
According to Bray, When we first came out no one said our offensive line had a chance because many of them are small. But, they played hard the whole game and stayed on the blocks. The offensive line never gets much credit but I feel they deserve a lot. This is our third championship in four years and my coaching staff has done a good job getting these boys ready, working in the off-season. I think its finally starting to pay off.