By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
It was pretty much what Captain Shreve coach Adam Kirby and Natchitoches Central coach Jess Curtis expected.
They, their coaches and players were in the minority. Very few others believed the Gators, unbeaten in District 1-5A coming off a 60-35 win at defending champion Airline, would struggle against the under-development Chiefs Friday night at Turpin Stadium.
Make that the emerging Chiefs, who were a couple of plays away from being on the other side of a 32-24 loss to Shreve – the state’s second-ranked Division I Select team.
Curtis, the first-year NCHS coach who steered the Many High program at his alma mater from a struggling squad into a perennial state championship contender, was frustrated yet proud after Friday night’s battle.
Kirby was just impressed.
“I knew when they hired coach Curtis, we’d see big change. This is a program that is going to be a force to be reckoned with for many years. The way they played tonight, the way they came back at Benton … what he’s building here is outstanding and I urge everybody to be patient. You’re going to have something special if you let him do his job because he knows what it takes to win.
“They showed that tonight against what I feel is a really good Shreve team,” said Kirby.
It was nearly a really upset Shreve team. But the Gators (6-1 overall, 4-0 in district) made just enough plays, most on defense, to hold off the Chiefs (2-5, 1-3).
Those key plays came at both ends of the field, and smack dab in the middle.
With just under 10 minutes to go before halftime, NCHS was about to draw even, or close to it, first-and-goal at the Shreve 5, trailing 13-6. A Chiefs running back took a handoff and cut upfield, possibly headed for a touchdown.
Suddenly, it became a 95-yard Captain Shreve fumble return TD by cornerback Jay Youngblood.
“He got right in front of me. Then he dropped the ball,” said Youngblood. “All I saw was green grass after I picked it up, and I had to keep going.”
“Nah, we stripped it. We practice that,” said Kirby, later, grinning, knowing better. It was the kind of thing that happens to upset bids on Friday the 13th.
That play was a two-score swing for the visitors, who went up 19-6.
Late in the third period, on fourth-and-1 at midfield, Gators’ defensive tackle Greg Webb stonewalled Chiefs’ quarterback Owen Smith as NCHS tried to trim a 29-18 deficit.
Six minutes later, a Shreve chip shot field goal stretched the spread to 14, but the Chiefs didn’t wilt. They got a third TD of the night from the state’s No. 2 receiver, Cam Davis, a 29-yard catch and run through three defenders to cash in a 10-play drive with 7:09 to go. A blocked PAT (the third of the game by Shreve) left it at 32-24.
Speaking of blocked kicks, one more mattered. NCHS’s Braden Woods batted down a Gators’ punt with 3:45 left, starting NCHS at the Shreve 39. Four snaps later, It was first-and-goal at the 2.
That’s where the Gators’ defense bit hard again. Two inside dives were stood up, Smith was sacked for a three-yard loss on third down, then was rushed into an off-target throw on the last gasp for NCHS. Shreve took over with 1:08 left and ran out the clock.
Curtis was furious after the fourth-down play because an NCHS receiver and two Shreve defenders were on the ground at the goalline in the middle of the field when Smith’s pass was thrown. Clumsy? Not hardly.
“They tackled our receiver. Just tackled him, and got away with it,” he said. “The officials missed it.
“But down on the goalline, end of the game, we didn’t make the plays at that point, and they did. They know they were in a ballgame tonight. We’ve got to make those plays, and that’s the last step,” said Curtis. “We’re so close.”
The game had an odd feel. The Gators weren’t in danger, but they were never in command, either. NCHS outgained the visitors 401-320, holding a 21-14 advantage in first downs. Smith threw for 256 yards (18-30-1, 3 TDs) as Davis caught 10 of them for 129 yards, including TDs of 9, 23 and 29 yards.
The Chiefs’ other score was a 14-yard run by Zion Thompson, a sweep finishing a snazzy 7-play, 80-yard march opening the third quarter and getting the upstarts within 22-18. Thompson had 95 yards on 14 carries.
Gators’ explosive running back Jamarlon “Bobo” Otis scored twice, but never from long distance as he had done all season. Shreve got just 65 rushing yards from the junior sensation, who entered the game averaging 185 and ranking sixth statewide with 1,110 total.
“A Jess Curtis-coached team is a well-coached team. We knew we’d get everything they had. They played their butts off, and I credit our kids for bowing their necks when they needed to,” said Kirby. “Especially our defense.”
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