Leading 12-0 going into the fourth quarter last Friday at Willow Springs, the Houston High School football team was in position to secure a conference win for the first time in 2019.
But when the final horn sounded, the Tigers had again come up short, as an extra point following a touchdown with only 1:14 left in the game helped the host Bears pull off an unlikely victory by the slimmest of margins, 13-12.
Houston got on the board with 7:04 to go in the first quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run by senior running back Chance Mitchell. The score remained at 6-0 after a failed 2-point conversion pass on a fake kick play, and neither team scored in the second quarter.
Willow Springs did threaten late in the first half, but a drive deep into Houston territory was halted when senior defensive back Jaekan Moss intercepted a pass at the goal line.
The Tigers struck again with only 10 seconds left in the third quarter on a 2-yard TD run by Mitchell on a fourth down play, and led 12-0 going into the final 12 minutes.
But with 6:46 to go in the game, the Bears began their decisive rally on a 12-yard touchdown scamper by senior running back Tryton Henley. The point-after kick failed, but Willow Springs (4-3, 3-2 SCA) tied the score at 12-all on an 11-yard run by Henley, who then connected on what turned out to be the game-winning extra point kick.
Even after the Bears took the late advantage, Houston didn’t give up and quickly moved the ball into Willow Springs territory. But the Tigers were ultimately denied when senior defensive back Jon Baker intercepted a pass at the Bear 5-yard line on the final play of the game.
“This game was tough, obviously,” said HHS head coach Eric Sloan. “We felt like we did what we needed to do in order to win, we just came up short. We fumbled a snap at the wrong time, jumped offside at the wrong time and missed a couple tackles at the wrong time. We dominated the time of possession and just came up short.
“It stings knowing we were that close to knocking them off. They’re a quality ball team and have things rolling.”
Mitchell continued his run of remarkable rushing performances by carrying the ball 30 times for 110 yards. Based on available personnel, he started the season as a lineman, but when sophomore Bailey Hurst sustained an injury at Cabool, Sloan moved him permanently to the backfield. Last week’s game marked the third time this season Mitchell has run for more than 100 yards.
“Chance would be a running back for most any team we play,” Sloan said, “but with the players we had this year at the beginning it was best for us to play him on the line, to keep the youth from having to play on Fridays. When Bailey went down, we had to move him. He was up for the challenge and was willing to do whatever the team needed. He’s the ultimate team player and that’s exactly what we have to have in a program the size of ours.
“Everyone wants to be a skill player, and I commend him for doing what was best for our team and starting on the line again this year. I can’t say enough good things about the type of kid he is.”
Houston (2-5, 0-5 SCA) benefited in the game from the return of two senior starters who had each missed been sidelined with injuries: Devin Wallander (offensive lineman and linebacker) and Tristan Leier (running back and defensive back). Wallander ended up being one of the Tigers’ tackling leaders in the contest, while Leier ran for a season-high 51 yards on 11 carries.
“The kids were obviously upset knowing that we had a chance to win,” Sloan said. “I think that’s a positive. After the injuries we have had, it’s good to know that they still care. It would be easy to make excuses with all the new lineups we’ve put on the field and all the youth that is being forced into action.
“It would be easy to hang it up and regroup next year, but the kids battled.”
Sloan credited the Tigers’ defense for playing well most of the way.
“We had some missed assignments late that led to big gains and a score,” he said. “The last score was a crazy play where the pitch happened as we were tackling him. Then the guy went the next 5 yards untouched and that’s the difference.”
Houston hosts Mountain Grove this Friday on senior night. Sloan said the Tigers can’t take the winless Panthers lightly.
“Mountain Grove is the best 0-7 team I’ve ever seen,” he said. “They’re young but skilled and they’ve played with most everyone but just haven’t been on the winning side yet. We have to play a perfect game – we can’t play three quarters and then make a few mistakes.
“They have a strong tradition over there. Those kids aren’t used to losing and will show up expecting to win.”