Lions lose on bizarre finish

By Rocky Nimmons

CENTRAL — It came down to a single kick in the final second.

It was do-or-die time for the Daniel Lions Friday night, and the stars just didn’t line up for the Columbia blue and gold.

John Bolton/ Daniel receiver Carter Groomes stretches unsuccessfully for a pass Friday night at Singleton Field.

John Bolton/
Daniel receiver Carter Groomes stretches unsuccessfully for a pass Friday night at Singleton Field.

Cross-county rival Easley took a huge 19-17 victory over the Lions at Singleton Field on a night that started out with celebration only to end in one of the strangest finishes in Daniel football history.

The night began with the honoring of three of the Lions’ greatest fans, who all passed away over the last 12 months. Long-time chain crew captain Mack Ross, former player Bobby “Snag” Stancell and Daniel graduate and Singleton Field fixture Rick Nimmons were all honored during the pre-game festivities. The event culminated with the naming of the field’s press box after “The voice of the Lions” Hal Garrett.

Fans of both schools filtered in anticipating a battle, and the game lived up to the hype, with Easley jumping out front early and the Lions clawing back in the second half only to come up short on the game’s final play on a strange and little-known rule.

With the Lions trailing 19-17 and a little more than a second to play, Daniel pulled out an obscure play from the rule book and attempted a 51-yard free kick to win the game. The kick fell short of the goal post, sending the Green Wave fans into a frenzy and leaving the Daniel faithful scratching their heads on just what had happened when the final whistle sounded.

“If you fair catch it, you have the opportunity to free kick,” Daniel coach Randy Robinson said after the game. “If we would have made that, we would have won the game with the field goal. We had a shot at it, and we should have made it.”

But the play was one many had never seen before, and the mass confusion sent many home wondering what exactly had happened.

Poor clock management and several resets as timekeepers tried to correct mis-starts left the Lions with little other option than to call the free kick.

“I still think we had some clock management issues,” Robinson said. “I thought we would have had time to run a play, but it didn’t happen. We would have liked to have been able to take one shot. All we had was to try the free kick, so we took advantage of it.”

From the opening whistle, Easley came in ready to play, exposing holes in the Lions’ defense early and hitting big plays as the Daniel offense sputtered to find its way.

The Green Wave had a plan and executed on opportunities offensively and capitalized on Daniel turnovers to take a 19-7 lead at the half. The Lions made a game of it in the second half, but inconsistency offensively never gave them a lead.

“Defensively, we played well in the second half, but you can’t give up 19 points in the first half,” Robinson said. “We were just giving things away fundamentally. We were letting people run wide open and nobody covers them. That is just poor coaching. We have got to do a better job.”

The Wave got rolling early, mounting a scoring drive on their second possession. The series went 72 yards in five plays. Yellow flags rained down all night as both teams made many early-season mistakes. The drive saw four penalties, the most costly a roughing-the-passer call on the third snap that erased a Daniel stop and kept the Wave’s march alive.

New Easley head coach John Windham looked to keep it simple and relied on his running game from the start. Will Drawdy pounded the ball at the Daniel defense on the series, but it was Easley’s QB Dalton Black’s 57-yard pass to Holden Martin that drove in the final stake for the touchdown at the 7:32 mark of the first quarter. The point after was blocked, but the Green Wave took the early 6-0 lead.

It looked like the rust had worn off when the Lions got the ball back. The offense went to work and produced a classic Daniel drive. In 12 plays, the big cats went 80 yards and answered with a score of their own. Only two passes were thrown on the drive — a six-yard toss from Lion quarterback Ben Batson to Will Swinney and a 22 yarder to Carter Groomes. The rest came on the ground, with a tag-team effort by running back Stephon Kirksey and Batson carrying the load. Kirksey picked up 27 yards on five carries on the drive, while Batson got 10 yards on two. The 22-yard strike to Groomes capped the drive with 3:14 to play in the quarter. Rivers Sherrill grabbed the lead for the Lions with his extra point, making the score 7-6.

The drive looked to ignite the Green Wave, who answered in the blink of an eye. Following the ensuing kickoff, the green machine took over at their own 31-yard line following a nice return by Donte Cade. Windham decided to roll the dice and go up top, calling for senior quarterback Dalton Black to air it out. Black quickly spied a wide open Carter Wiles streaking uncovered in the flat and shot a bullet his way. The Lion defense was caught flat-footed, and the speedster went 69 yards to regain the Easley lead with 2:53 left in the first quarter. Windham elected to go for a two-point conversion, but the try came up empty as Black again tried his luck with Wiles. The Lion defense was up to the task, but the damage was done with Easley out front 12-7.

Daniel’s offense just couldn’t get in sync on its next series. A holding call on the first snap put the Lions in a hole, and a fumble ended the series two plays later when Kirksey was tackled hard and coughed up the pigskin deep in Daniel territory at the 12.

Easley was in great position to add points. A pair of penalties forced the Wave back to the Lions’ 29, but that did little to stop Easley, as Black again saw a soft spot in the Daniel defense and connected with Drawdy for a 26-yard pass that pushed the ball to the Lions’ 1-yard line. A play later, Black pushed into the end zone with only 10 seconds left in the first quarter. The Green Wave added the extra point for a controlling 19-7 lead.

The second quarter saw the two squads battle it out with their defenses dominating and forcing an exchange of punts.

The Lions got one last chance before the half and produced a 12-play drive that was helped along by a roughing-the-punter call midway through. The drive went 48 yards to the Wave 25, only to be ended by the Easley defense with a sack on the fourth down to send the game to half with the Wave up 19-7.

Robinson took his team to task at the intermission, and the Lions came out with fire from the start. Taking the opening kick and putting the ball in play at the 33, Robinson’s troops went straight to work.

Batson was not crisp, but he did find wide receiver Isaac Weaver on the series’ third snap with a beautiful rainbow of a pass for a 52-yard gain to the Wave 16. Kirksey carried three of the next four plays for 11 yards, including the final three for the touchdown. Sherrill added the point after with 9:23 to play, cutting the deficit to 19-14.

The Lion defense had enough of being used, and coordinator Jeff Fruster’s unit responded, forcing a three and out on Easley’s next possession.

Daniel went back to work after the Easley punt and mounted a 42-yard drive that sputtered to a halt at the Wave 21. Robinson sent in Sherrill, and the senior kicker aced a 38-yard field goal with 4:32 left in the third quarter to pull the Lions to within two points at 19-17.

The Daniel defense stayed tough and again forced an Easley punt.

The Lion offense took charge at the 49 and was on the move again. Batson looked a lot older than his sophomore status, running for 23 yards on five carries and passing for 19 yards on two completions on the possession. All was going good until Jacob Maloney lost his handle on the ball at the Wave 19, with Easley recovering to end the Daniel threat.

The teams exchanged punts on their next possessions, and the Lions looked to have a chance late when the offense pushed the ball deep into Easley territory at the 25. All looked good until the Green Wave defense stiffened and sacked Batson for a three-yard loss on second down, setting up a third and 21 from the Easley 28. Disaster struck, though, as Batson forced a pass and Easley’s Shawn-Thomas Faulkner snagged an interception at the 5-yard line to seemingly ice the contest for the Green Wave.

That is when the fun began.

Easley took over with 1:21 to play, and three big stops by the Lions’ defense gave Daniel one last chance. Facing fourth and 14 from the 3-yard line, Easley had to punt.

The Wave ran the clock down as far as they could, but Robinson had a plan. He knew he would get the ball with only a split-second left, and he gambled by having his deep men call for a fair catch, hoping the clock would stop with at least a tick left. That it did, with 1.2 seconds showing on the scoreboard clock.

The Lions had the ball at the Easley 41, and Robinson sent on his kicker with tee in hand. Sherrill set the ball in place, and the crowd was in awe, not sure exactly what was happening. It was a once-in-a-career chance to call a free kick. Sherrill lined the ball up and took his shot, but it wasn’t enough and the ball fell short, sending a surge of excitement through the Green Wave team and fan base.

Following the loss, Robinson reflected on what fans should understand about his 2015 team.

“People just don’t listen — I have told everybody that it was going to take time,” he said. “This offense is going to get there. It is going to take weeks. Nothing can simulate live game action and live bullets flying at you. We are going to make mistakes offensively. We are young at the key spots.

“Yeah, we accumulated a lot of yards, but we didn’t finish drives. The problem is we were jumping offsides and had a bad snap here and there. Easley did not stop us. They are not very good on defense. We simply didn’t put the ball in the end zone. That is our fault.”

Robinson acknowledged his young quarterback will take some time to develop.

“Batson made some big plays for us,” he said. “The key to being successful is the guys around him that do have experience have to really do a great job so all the pressure doesn’t fall to him. That is part of the process. I have told the seniors, ‘you have to go above and beyond until we get him settled in.’ You can’t tell a sophomore that he has to make every play. That is not fair and unrealistic.”

This Friday the Lions will travel to Emerald to take on the Vikings.

“It does not get any easier,” Robinson said. “We are going to Emerald, and all I have heard is how fast they are. They have the fastest defense in the state, that is for sure. It is going to be a challenge for an inconsistent offense, and that is what we have got. It is going to be a big challenge for us. If these seniors want to turn their season around, they better come to practice on Monday ready to work.

“We need support. I just hope the fans will be patient with this team. Offensively, we are sputtering, but we are getting closer. Defensively, if we can just coach them better in the first half, they probably don’t score on us. We have some work to do for sure.”