“Big-time players make big-time plays at big times.” That saying is a favorite of Whitehaven’s Head Coach Rodney Saulsberry’s sayings.
In the second-round game of the Tennessee 6A state playoffs against the Houston, the Whitehaven Tigers needed many spectacular plays to defeat the Houston Mustangs. But defeat them they did, 31-27, and now Whitehaven advances to the TSHAA quarterfinals.
The Tigers took the opening kickoff 63 yards and scored on a four-yard run by Cameron Sneed. Then, the Tigers got a big break when their defense forced a fumble on Mustangs’ star running back Lincoln Pare.
The Tigers took advantage of the fumble and went 39 yards when senior RB Jared Martin ran in a one-yard touchdown to extend Whitehaven’s lead to a comfortable 14-0 advantage.
However, Houston did not panic and relied on Pare to get them back into the game. The Mustangs went on a 15-play 75-yard drive when senior QB Ethan Burns crossed the goal line to get the Mustangs back into the game with a 14-7 score. Pare rushed for 45 yards on the drive.
After Houston’s defense held Whitehaven to three downs, a great punt return gave the Mustangs the ball on the 36-yard line. Houston did not waste that opportunity and Pare scored on a seven-yard run to tie the game at 14-14 at the half.
Houston dominated the time of possession in the third quarter and were able to take a 21-14 lead when FB Jordan Kirby was scored on a one-yard TD run.
The Tigers used all facets of their team to get back into the game. Senior kicker Nick Anewalt connected on a 30 yarder to cut into the Mustangs’ lead 21-17.
The Mustangs quickly answered the Tigers scoring drive quickly on a 1-yard run by Pare with 7:55 left in the game to give Houston a 27-17. The extra point was missed.
Early in the third quarter, Saulsberry inserted junior QB Keyshawn Harris, and the move paid off. Harris directed the Tigers on a three-play touchdown drive. Harris found Kevon Mullins on the sidelines near midfield, who broke several tackles to run in the TD, narrowing the deficit to 27-24 with 6:34 left in the game.
Once more, Whitehaven’s defense forced the Mustangs to punt. And despite throwing three incomplete passes in a row, Harris scrambled 12 yards on fourth down to keep the drive alive. Four plays later, Cameron Sneed dashed into the end zone to give the Tigers the lead for good 31-27. And a late interception from Tigers senior DB Josh Exom secured the victory.
“I love the way we started and the way we ended the game, but that middle part we have to work on a little bit,” Saulsberry said. “We were getting them to third down on everything, but we just couldn’t get them off the field.”
The Mustangs finish the season with a (10-2) record. The Mustangs was able to get 326 yards (203 rushing and 123 passing) against the Tigers’ defense.
“I am proud of my guys. I love the way that they fought back,” said Houston Head Coach James Thomas, now at the end of his first year. “Many teams would have folded in that situation. You can’t make that many mistakes and expect to beat a good football team.”
Houston QB Pare Thomas finished the game with 192 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“He has been special all year,” Coach Thomas said. “As he go we go. You can’t say enough about kid like that, the way he attacks the game.”
The Tigers had 400 yards in total offense (172 rushing and 228 passing). Harris had 172 passing yards in relief and Sneed rushed for 172 yards.
“What a championship feel on the game,” Saulsberry said. “We have not played with our full team yet for one reason or another. All day, things were going on to try to pull us, but these guys fought. When their backs were against the wall they came out and fought.”
Whitehaven has a rematch with the Germantown Red Devils on Friday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. The Red Devils defeated the Tigers two weeks ago to end the regular season. The winner of that game will be only one win short of going to the championship game in two weeks in Cookeville, TN.
Fifteen Whitehaven players were on academic suspension for the first meeting, but all are expected to play when they face a 12-0 Germantown.
The Tigers are (9-3) on the season and the three teams they lost to – Germantown, Lausanne and North Little Rock – all remain undefeated.