SIMPSONVILLE – A second place finish in Region I-5A and a chance to play at home in next week’s opening round of the playoffs were on the line at fifth-ranked Hillcrest Friday night. Fans at Chandler Stadium got their money’s worth simply watching J.L. Mann’s Mikel McClellan and Rams’ Avery McFadden show off their amazing talents.
But on a night where the two best playmakers put up more than 200 yards receiving apiece, the last three Patriots to catch a pass proved why football is still a team sport.
In a tie game with 55 seconds left, Mann linebacker Wyatt Ward – who had a team-high 13 tackles – made a diving interception at the Hillcrest 40-yard line.
On third-and-six from the Rams’ 11, standout quarterback Ethan Anderson (pictured) looked to his right where McClellan and fellow top receiver Keyshun Henderson had deserved attention from the defense. Anderson then turned to his left and threw to wide open tight end Camden Cremmins in the end zone. Cremmins’ lone catch of the night gave Mann a 42-35 lead with 9.3 seconds left.
Max Watt intercepted Hillcrest’s Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game as the Patriots’ erupted in jubilation.
“It’s ecstatic. We haven’t beaten Hillcrest since 2011 and it means a lot,” McClellan said. “We get to stay home and play at Slaton (Field) one more time as a senior. That means so, so much. I’m just proud and grateful for my guys.”
The Patriots (8-2, 3-1) will host Blythewood (4-6) in next Friday’s opening round of the Class 5A playoffs. After being ranked No. 2 in the state for much of the season before falling to region champion T.L. Hanna two weeks ago, Hillcrest (8-2, 2-2) will travel to Nation Ford (5-5).
In snapping a nine-game losing streak against the Rams, Friday’s win seemed to take on even more meaning for Mann’s program.
“I knew those kids had it in them,” Patriots coach Scoot Watson said. “We played a tight game with Greenville earlier and a tight game with Hanna. At some point I said, ‘we’ve got to get over the hump and beat one of these top teams … and get on that level.’
“I believed the whole time these guys were at that level, but they played that way tonight.”
McClellan and McFadden set the tone for the night from the start. Fresh off being named a Mr. Football finalist this week, McFadden turned a third-down screen into a 41-yard gain on the third play of the game. McFadden caught a 14-yard touchdown to end the drive.
McClellan broke open down the right sideline and Anderson hit him for a 47-yard touchdown later in the quarter to tie the game at 7-7.
On their ensuing possession, the Rams converted a second-and-25 when he caught a 56-yard pass from Kalab Sutton. Sutton capped the drive with a seven-yard touchdown run.
No one who’s ever worn a Hillcrest uniform has scored more touchdowns than McFadden, but all of those came on receptions, runs and kick returns. With the Rams down one starting cornerback due to injury Friday, McFadden was able to add an interception return for a score to his list. Anderson’s only mistake of the night resulted in a 38-yard pick six for McFadden to push the lead to 21-7.
After the Patriots answered with Na’Cyus Morrison’s 22-yard touchdown, a key play happened on the Rams’ next drive when Sutton was injured and never returned. He was 5-of-7 passing for 138 yards and had 34 yards rushing before the injury.
It was still 21-14 halfway through the third quarter when a great game started to get wilder by the minute. A Hillcrest blocked punt set up Will Thompson’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Weston Willis.
McClellan’s 50-yard reception highlighted Mann’s ensuing possession. On fourth down, Henderson made a leaping grab for a 26-yard touchdown. After forcing a three-and-out, it took the Patriots three plays to tie the game when Anderson threw deep over the middle for a 75-yard touchdown to McClellan.
It was still 28-28 with less than four minutes left when a three-play sequence turned the game upside down. McClellan was fighting for extra yards on a run, while McFadden was fighting to bring him down. McFadden eventually forced a fumble that the Rams recovered.
Momentum swung back with authority on the next play when Mann defensive lineman Joel Crespo intercepted a screen pass and rumbled 20 yards for a touchdown.
The Patriots’ first lead lasted about 20 seconds. On the next snap, McFadden caught a screen pass and raced 80 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 35-35 with 3:16 left. McFadden’s 50th career touchdown gave him 203 yards receiving on seven receptions for the game. He also had one carry for 14 yards.
“What can you say?” Hillcrest coach Bennett Swygert said. “The kid had over 200 yards receiving. He had a pick-six. If something were to happen to our backup quarterback, he would’ve been the next quarterback in.
“If I would’ve been smart enough to get us to overtime and we got into a Kansas City shootout, you probably would’ve seen McFadden at quarterback just from the field position.”
After McFadden’s long touchdown, Hillcrest forced a punt with just over a minute left. The Rams got 19 yards on first down on a pass from Thompson to Weston Willis but two plays later, Ward’s interception set up the wild finish.
McClellan finished with 237 yards receiving on nine catches with two touchdowns, while Henderson caught five passes for 70 yards. Anderson completed 21-of-34 passes for 365 yards with four touchdowns and one interception.
“Discipline, accountability and integrity are three words we’ve been going by all season,” Anderson said. “I think this game really puts all three words together perfectly. It’s just a great way to end the regular season and get momentum going into the playoffs.”