A game doesn’t require a trophy presentation after the final whistle to feel like a championship.
Friday night had everything but the hardware: one side featured a Gatorade bath and athletes performing celebratory backflips. The other had a long tear-soaked huddle in the end zone.
“My heart was beating; I’m not going to lie,” said Northeast linebacker Elijah Leaupepe after his team beat the Clarksville Wildcats 17-15 to advance to the TSSAA 5A state quarterfinals.
“We knew we had to bring the dog out of us. All glory to God. We’ve just got to come out and fight. Stay focused. Don’t let up. When they scored, we just had to keep our head up and never let down. It’s the battle of Clarksville – it’s who’s going to carry on Clarksville’s name.”
A postseason matchup between two Clarksville schools is rare – not since 2010 have two 931 foes met in an elimination game when Northeast beat Clarksville 6-3 in the same round.
“It did have that (championship) feel, that buzz because being in-town – it’s great to host a second round game, but being able to play a cross-town rival in that second round, it had that special feel to it,” said NEHS head coach Brandon Clark. “It was a very electric atmosphere.”
These two teams met in early October with Northeast securing a dominant 44-14 victory, but they knew Clarksville – who hadn’t lost a game since – was not going to let it happen again. They were correct – CHS took the first drive of the evening all the way in for a 2-yard Jamar Carnell touchdown run, using 15 plays and milking over eight minutes off the clock. They missed the extra point, though – a mistake that would prove costly later.
Northeast came back with a scoring drive of their own, punctuated by a 1-yard Juwan Harris touchdown, and the Eagles gained a 7-6 advantage.
The first quarter featured only those two drives, but the similarities between the two teams did not stop there. Both squads had three opportunities in the second quarter; Clarksville had a turnover on downs, a Davin Garinger interception and a 37-yard field goal. Northeast had a three-and-out, a Jaiden Puig interception and a 43-yard field goal.
The Eagles led 10-9 at halftime thanks to the missed PAT and almost identical drive results.
“I think we would’ve had to start faster, honestly,” said CHS head coach Isaac Shelby. “I told the coaching staff before, for us to be in it, I thought the end of that first quarter score was going to have to be more than what it was. We just didn’t get a lot of separation.”
But they were still in it until the final minute – even if it didn’t look that way at times. Northeast’s Jaylin Bowser put the Eagles up 17-9 with a 15-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and, after their defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, NEHS had a chance to claim a two-possession lead. However, a missed handoff resulted in a fumble and CHS pounced on it to flip the script.
Again, things seemed grim when Jamauri Cobbs dropped a potential stick-moving pass on fourth-and-long, but a roughing the passer penalty gave the Wildcats a free first down. Garinger cashed in with a 5-yard touchdown run, but Northeast snuffed out the 2-point conversion to keep the lead.
Now this is where things get interesting.
Northeast’s offense took the lead with a two-point advantage and proceeded to play tug-of-war with themselves. They would convert a play for big yardage, but it would come back due to a penalty. Then they’d make that yardage back up with another big play, but a penalty would move them back once more soon thereafter. They ended up committing seven penalties in the fourth quarter alone, but they were repaid by CHS when a horse collar tackle on a fourth-down sack gave the Eagles a free first down.
They continued to make their way deeper into Wildcat territory. They got to the 5-yard line with under two minutes remaining – and fumbled. Clarksville recovered and had a chance to march the length of the field with no timeouts and their season on the line.
One defensive pass interference penalty and a handful of catches later, the Wildcats found themselves at midfield with 45 seconds remaining on fourth-and-6. Davin Garinger dropped back to pass. Nobody was immediately open, so he scrambled to try and allow one of his receivers to get space. As pressure approached, he had to get rid of the ball.
It was caught by Northeast sophomore defensive tackle Gabriel Austin. One kneel from Puig later, and the Eagles were winners.
“(Austin is) the second-to-last guy I would’ve ever expected to intercept a pass, without a doubt,” Clark said. “Who would’ve thought? Unbelievable. The fact that I just watched that happen, it was very cool.”
For a defense as senior-led as Northeast’s is, of course it came down to a sophomore to make the biggest play of the season.
“There was some serious adversity in the fourth quarter with a string of penalties by our offense and then turning the ball over down here,” Clark said. “We gave (Clarksville) a lot of chances to get back in the game. We were able just to mentally stay focused.
“To have that kind of mental toughness and not break down, it’s kind of what we’re aiming for here.”
Clarksville’s season ends with the loss. After starting 1-4, they went on a four-game winning streak to claim a postseason spot on the final day of the regular season and defeated top-seeded Munford in their first-round playoff game on Nov. 6.
For them to be three games under .500 halfway through the season, to nearly a state quarterfinalist is nothing short of impressive on the parts of Shelby, his staff and, of course, the players themselves.
“They set the bar high with the way they work,” Shelby said. “I think that’s something that’s just going to continue our program and get better each year. This is a group of guys, really hard workers. Tough kids. They kept working, and this is a much different team now than they were at Stewarts Creek two or three months ago.”
The Eagles will face another familiar foe on Friday, Nov. 20 in the quarterfinals – the Henry County Patriots. The top two teams in Region 7-5A met less than one month ago in Clarksville and HCHS dismantled Northeast 58-0. Naturally, the Eagles will need a short memory going into the contest.
“We have to be better mentally prepared,” Clark said. “That comes back on me. We have to keep our minds in a way better place when we’re playing Henry County.”
The winner of Friday’s game in Paris, Tenn. will face the winner of Beech vs. Summit.
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