GATLINBURG — A Scott High team needing a win found one in dramatic fashion in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains Friday evening.
The Highlanders scored on a one-yard touchdown by Grainger Smith with 30 seconds remaining, then Eli Hembree sacked Gatlinburg-Pittman quarterback JD Shults as time expired to put the wraps on a 34-28 win.
It was the Highlanders’ first win of the season. More importantly, it was a Region 2-3A win that thrust Scott (1-4, 1-1) into the Region 2-3A playoff race as the season reached its midway point.
A jubilant Keith Shannon, who had urged his team to circle the wagons and believe in themselves after an 0-4 start to the season, called it an “awesome” win for the Scott High program.
“What a win,” Shannon said. “I tell you what, on the road in a great environment . . . they had a packed house and we brought a great crowd. I just couldn’t be happier with our coaches, our players, and our team leaders.”
The Highlanders, who had struggled to move the football at times this season, found an offensive groove in the first half, exploding to a 21-0 lead before Gatlinburg-Pittman (2-3, 1-1) knew what had happened.
But finding that elusive first win would not be quite as easy as that. Gatlinburg, which had won two consecutive games with ease, clawed back to cut the deficit to 21-20 early in the third quarter, then scored a late-game touchdown to tie the game at 28.
“We had to go through the process of learning how to win,” Shannon said. “We had them down, (but) we went and let them back in it.”
But, he added, “What about that group of boys, those young men? They stayed true to the process.”
The Highlanders finished with a season-high 387 yards, including 357 yards on the ground. Smith, the junior quarterback, turned in a phenomenal effort, rushing for 158 yards and a pair of touchdowns while also leading the Highlanders in tackles.
Hembree, whose sack of Shults thwarted Gatlinburg-Pittman’s opportunity for end-of-game heroics after GP had reached midfield with only seconds left on the clock, finished with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Eight different Scott High players carried the football, and Smith threw his first touchdown pass of the season, to Mason Tucker.
“I told the kids to savor the flavor,” Shannon said. “This is one win, but it keeps so much alive for our group. We talked about winning seasons, we talked about going to the playoffs. Both of those things are very much alive. We have a tough road to go down, but you climb mountains one step at a time.”
The Highlanders got off to a quick start, taking the opening kickoff and covering 60 yards in six plays for the game’s first touchdown. Scott ran the ball on five consecutive plays to start the drive, before Smith and Tucker hooked up for a 12-yard touchdown.
After the two teams exchanged punts for much of the rest of the first quarter, Smith broke free for a 47-yard run to set up a three-yard touchdown run for a score to go ahead 14-0.
One play later, disaster struck for Gatlinburg-Pittman. Collin Garza fumbled the ball and Dawson Branstetter recovered, setting up a five-play scoring drive, with Daniel Hembree scoring from 14 yards out.
Up 21-0, it appeared the Highlanders might cruise to their first victory of the season, but Gatlinburg-Pittman had other thoughts. GP put together a lengthy drive to finally find the end zone, with Shults and Andrew Gentry hooking up for a 13-yard score.
The Highlanders fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving Gatlinburg possession at the six-yard-line. But Scott’s defense turned in an important goal line stand, with Mason Owens getting a stop near the line of scrimmage on first down, followed by two incomplete passes before Gatlinburg settled for a 22-yard field goal.
Gatlinburg scored again late in the half, with Shults and Boston Smith hooking up for a 32-yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to 21-17 at the half.
After Gatlinburg started the second half with a 28-yard field goal to cut the Highlander lead to 21-20, Scott put together a scoring drive that mixed the running of Eli Hembree and Smith, before Tristen Henry scored on a 21-yard run to push the lead to 28-20.
That’s how things stood late in the fourth quarter, when Scott turned in a big stop in Gatlinburg territory. With 5:50 remaining, Gatlinburg opted to go for it on fourth down. But an incomplete pass gave Scott possession at the 31-yard-line.
Scott was unable to move the ball, however, and turned the ball over on downs at the 29. That set up a 71-yard touchdown pass from Shults to Andrew Gentry, and Shults carried the ball for a two-point conversion to tie the game at 28.
But if overtime was on the minds of anyone, Scott had other ideas. The Highlanders put together a nine-play, 61-yard drive to win the game in regulation. A key play was an 18-yard run by Ryan Newport on third and long, followed by a 20-yard run by Smith. After a couple of carries by Henry, Smith got the score from a yard out with 30 seconds remaining.
The Highlanders missed the extra point, but any remaining drama ended when Hembree broke around the side of the line to sack Shults as time expired.