Nashville, the fifth-seed out of the tough 7-4A conference, came to Highland and took away what the Rebels do well to earn a 35-21 state playoff victory on Nov. 11.
"It's pretty obvious that they are the best team we've seen all year. Not that they were unbeatable by any means," said Rebel Head Coach Spencer Hill. "It seemed like every offensive drive we had, we had penalties, false starts, and you're just working yourself behind the chains, you're digging yourself out of a hole the whole time."
This season, junior quarterback Sterling Stowers has spread the ball around to 12 different receivers, but his main target has been 6-6 Ethan Hoppe. But the junior receiver wasn't the 'tall kid' on the field, finding himself triple covered most of the night by the equally tall Nashville secondary.
Stowers threw just two interceptions in nine games, but had three against the Scrappers.
The running game has been the main weapon in the Rebels' offense all season. The team averages about 250 yards per game, with Stowers averaging 113 and junior running back Jordan Brewer adding 94 yards per contest.
The Scrappers held the Rebels to 146 yards on the ground.
"Sterling was under some pressure, difficulty finding the open guy. They game planned against Hoppe," explained Hill. "They executed that very well. We just didn't find the open guy."
The back-breaking play came with two seconds left in the half. The Scrappers had just 40 seconds to move 58 yards to answer the Rebels' second touchdown. On third down with 12 seconds on the clock, quarterback Kevin Hendry threw a slant pass to Tesean Green, who broke three tackles on his way to the end zone for a 21-13 halftime lead.
"We played OK on defense. Those two big plays in the first half and, of course, that one right before half is a killer. It should be a 14-13 game going into halftime and we get the ball coming out," said Hill. "Their kid made a good play, but we've got to step up and make a tackle. That was definitely the key point of the game."
Highland was not able to answer that score on its second-half opening drive.
The Scrappers opened the game with a seven-play, 60-yard drive for a JaKaree Gaines 2-yard touchdown and a Oscar Herrera extra-point.
An incomplete pass and a holding penalty were Highland's first two plays, followed by a 13-yard Stowers to Michael Copeland pass and a Stowers 3-yard run to force a punt.
The Reb D stopped the Scrappers on fourth down at mid-field, but the offense only generated three yards before punting a second time.
Again the Highland defense stymied the Nashville running game. The short Green punt gave Highland the ball at mid-field.
It looked like another quick three-and-out, with three incomplete passes, but a pass interference call on the Scrappers on third down sparked the Rebels. Stowers ran for 11 yards and Brewer had two carries of nine and eight yards. Brewer lost two yards on third down at the Reb 14. Stowers found senior Ben Markway in the middle of the end zone for a surprisingly easy touchdown. Hoppe added the PAT to tie the score at 7-all.
Nashville used a defensive chop-block penalty on Highland to set up a Hendry to Lavonte Thomas 41-yard TD pass to regain the lead at 14-7 with 8:16 left in the half.
Starting at its own 32, Highland picked up two first downs to get into Scrapper territory. On third-and-4, Stowers lofted a pass to Hoppe that was picked off by Thomas and returned the Nashville 44.
The Reb defense forced a three-and-out.
Stowers used a 30-yard pass to Avery Johnson, a 20-yarder to Brennon Severn, and a roughing-the-passer penalty on the Scrappers to allow the Reb QB to take it in from seven yards out. A false start on the point-after attempt made for a 15-yard PAT which Hoppe pushed slightly to the left.
With 44 seconds left in the half, Nashville retained the lead 14-13 and gave the Scrappers enough time to score before halftime.
Highland gained a couple of first downs on the opening drive of second half, but were forced to punt.
The Scrappers used a eight-play, 67-yard drive, including a 22-yard pass from Hendry to Ryan Forte, for a Hendry 1-yard scoring run and a 29-13 advantage.
A Rebel personal foul penalty on the touchdown run moved the kickoff to Highland 45 making it easy for Seth Wakefield to kick the ball into end zone for a touchback.
On third down, Stowers' second interception was caught by Thomas and returned to the Rebel 11, which allowed Gaines to score his second TD on an eight-yard run.
After stopping the Scrappers on fourth-and-12 at the Rebel four, the Reb offense efficiently moved down the field for the final score. Stowers picked up 38 yards rushing, and finally connected with Hoppe on a passes of 31 and 10 yards before running for a three-yard touchdown. He rolled out on the conversion to hit Copeland in the end zone.
Highland was led by Stowers with 84 yards on 18 carries and was 14-of-24 for 174 yards passing. Brewer added 15 rushes for 62 yards. Johnson led the team with five catches for 48 yards.
"I'm so proud of what we've accomplished and what this senior class has done. We had a great off-season which led us to a district championship," said Hill. "I told the guys they're champions no matter what and there's no one that can take that away from them."
Highland will graduate 12 seniors, but retains many contributors to this year's team.
"It's hard to think about next year right now, but we feel like with our experience we should be taking that next step even further next year."