WILLOW SPRINGS –– Houston wasn’t going to be denied.
The Tigers were without two seniors and two-way starters.
They lost a 14-point lead.
They faced fourth-and-8 with the game on the line.
But they found a way.
Quarterback Nathan Poynter connected with Ethan Kelley on fourth down with 2 minutes, 48 seconds remaining to keep the final drive alive. And Chance Hunter capped another last-minute victory as he plowed into the end zone with 1:13 left.
Houston 29, Willow Springs 22.
“I’m so proud of these kids and the fight that they showed,” Tigers coach Eric Sloan said. “They accepted the challenge and got it done.”
The adversity began before kickoff as Keegan Spurlin, the team’s leading tackler and starting offensive guard, and Matt Knarr, a starting wide receiver and cornerback, were both in street clothes with injuries. The team’s depth thinned further when Kelley –– another two-way starter –– took a helmet to the hip on a first-quarter touchdown reception and was limited to defensive duties only the rest of the way.
Still, the Tigers started strong with a pair of first-quarter touchdowns and 21-8 halftime advantage. But aided by a third-quarter touchdown pass that appeared to skip across the ground, Willow Springs erased the deficit and took its first lead on a 55-yard touchdown pass with 8:08 left.
The situation looked bleak when Houston faced fourth down with less than three minutes remaining. But Poynter connected with Kelley, who returned only for that series, on a sliding 16-yard catch and five plays later, Hunter scored his third touchdown of the game.
Senior Steven Logan capped his best game of the season with an interception with 33 seconds remaining to seal the hard-fought win that had major district implications.
“Props to the kids,” Sloan said. “There was every opportunity to quit after blowing that lead.”
Hunter led the HHS offense with 24 carries for 168 yards and his 10th, 11th and 12th rushing scores of the season. Logan added a career-best 131 yards on 13 attempts.
Poynter was 7-of-12 passing for 77 yards and a score.
Logan had 17 carries for 84 yards in the previous six games before taking on a bigger workload with Kelley sidelined.
“He ran like a man tonight,” Sloan said of Logan.
Houston (4-3, 2-3 South Central Association), which had only scored eight first-quarter points the first six games, started strong. The Tigers received the opening kickoff and after consecutive runs of 34 and 28 yards by Hunter –– his two longest carries of the season –– HHS led 6-0 exactly one minute into the game.
A turnover set up another score as Austin Schock intercepted a pass and returned it 35 yards on Willow Springs’ first possession. With the ball at the Bears’ 40-yard-line, the Tigers ran the ball six straight times before Kelley took a short pass from Poynter and went 14 yards into the end zone.
Lucas Kelley kicked another successful PAT to put Houston ahead 14-0 at the 5:28 mark.
Sloan credited Ethan Kelley’s teammate for setting up his score.
“That was Whitley Welch,” he said. “Ethan gets credit for it, but Whitley sprung that thing loose.”
The Bears (1-6, 1-4 SCA) got their first points on Chris Stanley’s 71-yard touchdown run. But the deficit was 13 points at the half after Hunter scored from 15 yards away late in the second quarter.
Despite losing their double-digit lead and without several key players, the Tigers made enough plays for their fourth victory of the season.
“It’s a ‘next guy up’ mentality,” Sloan said. “We challenged them to care more about the guy to the left and right than themselves.
“They rose to the challenge.”
HOU –– Hunter 28 run (LKelley kick), 11:00.
HOU –– EKelley 14 pass from Poynter (LKelley kick), 5:28.
WS –– Stanley 71 run (Stanley run), 0:00.
HOU –– Hunter 15 run (LKelley kick), 2:29.
WS –– Fine 89 pass from Wake (Fine kick), 5:39.
WS –– Fine 55 pass from Wake (Fine kick), 8:08.
HOU –– Hunter 4 run (AShock pass from Poynter), 1:13.
RUSHING –– Houston, Hunter 24-168, Logan 13-131, Poynter 5-(minus 50). Willow Springs, Stanley 24-154, Wake 11-26, McDaniel 1-(minus 4).
PASSING –– Houston, Poynter 7-12-0 77. Willow Springs, Wake 6-13-2 182.
RECEIVING –– Houston, EKelley 2-30, ASchock 4-26, Clifton 1-21. Willow Springs, Fine 2-144, McDaniel 3-26, Cody 1-12.
Week 7 scores
Houston 29, Willow Springs 22
Liberty 46, Cabool 8
Mountain Grove 20, Salem 14
Thayer 35, Ava 20
Week 8 games
Mountain Grove at Houston
Cabool at Ava
Willow Springs at Thayer
Salem at Liberty