ATHENS — Athens Head Coach Jack Young challenged his team to display pride and toughness at halftime. His team managed that and some excitement but fell just short in Friday night’s 34-32 loss to visiting Midd-West.
Midd-West dominated the first quarter of the game. The Mustangs bolted out to a 14-0 lead. They ran for almost 100 yards in the quarter. Trey Lauver rushed for both their scores. Their biggest challenge may have been avoiding the yellow flags they were drawing. Midd-West committed five penalties for 45 yards.
The Wildcats were able to get on the board courtesy of an Jared Petersen interception in Mustang territory. Athens took over at the 35-yard line. The drive was aided by a crucial roughing the passer penalty on fourth and 23. Mason Lister was able to find Keegan Rude open for a 7-yard touchdown pass to cap the drive. Midd-West blocked the extra point attempt to keep their lead at 14-6.
The Mustang stampede regained its pace and scored twice more before the half. Midd-West drove 48 yards for six and then 80 for six more and an extra point before the horn sounded. The Mustangs ran their lead up to 27-6.
That’s when Young challenged his players.
“We weren’t ourselves in the first half. We weren’t playing with a lot enthusiasm or fire. So I challenged them,” Young told his squad.
The Wildcats responded.
Shayne Reid returned the opening kickoff 40 yards to the Midd-West side of the field. The Wildcat offense took over from there and drove the remaining 45 yards into the end zone. Once again, it was Lister finding Rude for a 14-yard touchdown. Reid nailed the extra point and the Wildcats closed to 27-13.
The Mustangs responded quickly with a two-play, 64-yard drive highlighted by a 61-yard touchdown pass from Gabe Regester to Christian Regester. Carter Sauer hit the extra point and Midd-West was back up by 21 points midway through the third quarter.
The Wildcat offense began to move again late in the third quarter. They took possession of the ball on their own 18-yard line. Lister was able to find open receivers for big gains. JJ Babcock and Rude reeled in the bulk of the yardage. Rude hauled in a 29-yard touchdown to complete the drive. The two point conversion was no good, and Midd-West still led, 34-19.
The Mustang offense sputtered as the Wildcat sideline gained momentum and energy. Athens outgained Midd-West 222 yards to just 10 in the fourth quarter.
With energy and excitement on their side, Athens was able to score on its final two possessions. Rude caught a 47-yard pass from Lister which was followed by a successful extra point to pull Athens to within eight, 34-26.
On their next drive, Lister rushed into the end zone from two yards out to pull the Wildcats to within two at 34-32. A tricky two point conversion tailback pass fell incomplete and left Athens in a desperate situation. The game only had 55 seconds left and Athens had no timeouts left.
Midd-West was able to cover the onsides kick attempt and run out the clock to escape with the victory.
Young praised his players after the heartbreaking loss.
“I think we displayed some excitement. We just got to keep working hard,” Young said.
Specifically he noted the performance of the “guys in the middle” — Dylan Comstock, Luke Aquilio, Connor Sindoni, Ian Wright, Dan Hill, Ben Pernaselli — which he felt fueled their teammates.
Young also highlighted “two pretty special performers tonight Shayne Reid and Keegan Rude.” Reid finished with 24 carries for 75 yards while Rude had eight receptions for 146 yards and four touchdowns.