Lions storm back to defeat Easley

By Rocky Nimmons

CENTRAL – In what will go down in Pickens County football history as one of the wildest finishes that nobody saw, the Daniel Lions stormed back from an 18-point deficit to beat Easley 29-28 in a game that finished after midnight following a pair of delays.

8-31 Page 1B.indd Most fans headed for the house following the call for a lightning delay that came just before the game entered the fourth quarter. Fans had just waited through a delay after Daniel’s Nick Taylor took a vicious hit near the Easley sideline. The injury halted play until an ambulance could get on scene and take Taylor to the hospital for treatment. The young Lion was released later in the night with no serious injuries.

Just as Taylor was taken from the field, flashes of lighting began to cover the sky. Play did resume, but only for a few snaps, as officials called for all players and spectators to head for cover until the lightning moved through the area.

The Lions, who were huddling in their locker room down 28-10 after just seeing a teammate being taken off the field by ambulance, could have 8-31 Page 1B.inddthrown in the towel, but they had other plans. The Lions took the adversity that was given to them and turned it into energy. When the game finally restarted, shortly after 11:30 p.m., the Lions were in a different mindset. They were ready, and it showed, as the Daniel defense shut down Easley and the offense lit up the scoreboard with 19 points in the final quarter with less than 100 people in the stands.

“We are going to be the type of team that stays focused on never giving up,” Daniel head coach Jeff Fruster said with excitement minutes after the final whistle.

Fruster said his coaches and players did not waste the down time during the break.

“I told them 12 minutes is an eternity in football,” he said. “You never know what will happen. You just have to keep fighting.”

And fight they did, coming out of the break like a rodeo bronco out of a chute, Dominating 5A Easley over the last 12 minutes.

When the game kicked off, no one expected the second game with Fruster at the helm would be so full of peaks and valleys.

The Lions looked to be running on all cylinders as the defense stymied the Wave and forced a three and out, despite a nice 48-yard kick return by Easley’s Will Drawdy that gave the wave the ball at the Lions’ 45.

Following the Easley punt, the Lions put together an 11-play drive that covered 88 yards for the first points of the contest. Daniel signal-caller Ben Batson was in control as the dual-threat QB used both his arm and legs to move the pigskin for Fru’s crew.

Batson took a sack to open the series, but followed that with two pass completions. The first was a quick seven-yard toss to wideout Will Swinney, and the second was a 10 yarder to Hampton Earle. Kiandre Sims took a handoff and picked up a couple yards, followed by a pair of keepers by Batson for 15 more yards, putting the Lions in a second-down-and-six situations at the Green Wave 46.

Sims got the call again, and the sophomore answered with a big 12-yard run and a first down at the 34-yard line. Brandon Peppers gained 10 more yards and another Lion first down. Batson went to the air on the next two snaps, and it was the second toss that hurt Easley most when he spied Earle open deep and connected with a 20-yard strike, giving the Lions a first and goal at the Wave 5. Batson capped the drive by blasting into the Easley end zone on the next play. Lion kicker Nick Muchow trotted on and split the uprights on the extra point with 7:17 left in the first quarter.

The two teams exchanged punts on their next series, and no one could really get anything going, But Easley coach John Windham was just getting his team warmed up, and that is when the big Green Machine got to rolling.

Windham’s team started to mesh, and put together a quick five-play drive that covered 66 yards. Derrick Phillips took a Weston Black handoff and picked up seven yards. Then Black called his own number and gained seven more yards and an Easley first down. Phillips was not close to done after his first carry and ripped off a huge 45-yard scamper that had the Lion defense on their heels. Phillips didn’t get rounded up until he was deep in Lion country at the8-31 Page 1B.indd Daniel 6-yard line. Noah Lupton took the first Black handoff, but was brought down by Daniel’s Miles “Boogie” Turmon and company at the 4. Windham again challenged the front five to make some space, and this time Drawdy got the call and blasted into the end zone as time expired in the first quarter. Garrett Rookard added the point-after attempt to even the game at 7-7.

The score looked to ignite Windham’s Wave as they halted the Lions quickly and forced a punt following the ensuing kickoff.

Again it was a tidal wave of Green that swept over the Lions defense. In only six plays, Easley had traveled 69 yards for another touchdown. This time around another big run mid-way through broke the Lions’ defense down. Sean-Thomas Faulkner found a crease and zoomed 39 yards to give Easley a first and 10 at the Lions’ 12-yard line. The touchdown came two plays later, as Black found his favorite target, wideout Carter Wiles, open over the middle from seven yards out. Rookard again nailed the PAT, and the Wave were cruising 14-7 with 7:56 to play in the first half.

The Daniel offense could not produce a sustained drive following the kickoff and again was forced to punt the ball away.

At that point the Green Wave were in command and had all the momentum. Taking over at their own 15-yard line, the Wave were on the move again. The series lasted eight plays and was highlighted by an incredible pass-and-catch from Black to Wiles that covered 64 yards. The drive was capped by a three-yard plunge by Phillips three plays later for the score with 1:30 left in the half. Rookard added the point after, and the Wave were in control, leading Daniel 21-7.

The Lions managed to turn the momentum a little and got three points on the board before half when Fru’s crew put together a 45-yard drive that ended with a nice 34-yard Muchow field goal just before halftime.

At halftime, former Daniel state championship teams were honored, including the 25th anniversary of the 1991 3A state championship football team, many of whom were on the field at intermission.

As the second half got underway, the Wave again grabbed momentum and halted the Lions right away and forced a quick three downs and out sequence.

Taking the Lions’ punt and putting the ball in play at the Easley 30-yard line the Wave were again on the move. This time it was a steady diet of Phillips and Drawdy with a sprinkle of Black passes that kept the Lion defense off balance.

The formula worked until the series’ 10th play, when Black aired it out looking for Wiles only to have Daniel linebacker Jake Venables pick the receiver’s pocket and snag a turnover for the Lions.

The Lions tried to get something going offensively and did push the ball 27 yards in 10 plays, but the series stalled and Muchow punted the ball away.

The punt was taken deep by Faulkner, and like green lightning, the speedster managed a great return all the way to the Daniel 30-yard line. Windham went for the jugular and called on Black to go to the air on the drive’s third play. This time Black hit Levi Segee for a 34-yard TD with only 35 second left in the third quarter. Rookard nailed the PAT, and the Wave were rolling 28-10.

On the ensuing kickoff, Taylor took the hit that sent the game into an injury delay. Following the delay of more than 30 minutes, the Lions had the ball at their own 23-yard line with seconds remaining in the third. Fruster and company got off three snaps, moving the ball 18 yards to the 41-yard line before officials called for the lightning delay as the night sky flashed around Singleton Field.

Finally, more than an hour and half later and with most fans safely at home, the Green Wave and Lions trotted back on the field at 11:30 p.m. to put the game in the books. The Lions appeared to have little chance of victory down 18 points with just 12 minutes left to play, but fate smiled on the blue and gold.

When the game resumed, the Lions had the ball at their own 41, facing second down and four yards to go. It looked bleak, as time ticked away and the Lions were forced to punt.

Daniel’s defense had other plans, and the unit rose up and wreaked havoc on the Green Wave offense as soon as they took possession. Looking possessed, the defense stormed the Wave and caused them to fumble on the series’ third play, with Daniel’s Khalil Anderson covering the ball at the Green Wave 12-yard line.

But again the Lions could not push the ball in for a touchdown, and on the series’ fourth play Fruster called on Muchow to come on to try to make it a two-score game. A bad snap ended any hopes for three points, and things looked bad for the Lions as the scoreboard clock was approaching eight minutes to play.

That is when it happened. The young Lions, who had one of the toughest seasons in decades last year, grew up before the eyes of those in attendance. They all bought into what the Fru was cooking and set the tone for what could prove to be a remarkable season ahead.

The defense was already playing the best it had played all night, and again stuffed the Wave and forced a punt without allowing a first down.

Taking over at the Easley 35 yard line, the Lions’ offense finally started clicking. On the drive’s first and only play, Batson slung a rainbow downfield and into the waiting arms of Isaac Weaver, who rumbled into the end zone with 7:13 to play. Fruster went for a two-point conversion, but Batson’s pass over the middle to Swinney missed its mark, making the score 28-16 in favor of Easley.

Whatever Daniel defensive coordinator Kirk Ellison told his unit during the delay must have done the trick, because the Lion defense was ferocious and hammered Easley again, forcing a punt.

Taking over at his own 38, Batson looked like an old veteran as he marched his team downfield. He hit Swinney with three completions for a total of 25 yards on the seven-play drive. His biggest toss, though, was reserved for Brandon Peppers and covered the final 21 yards for another Lion touchdown. The few fans who were still in the stadium were screaming, as hope was still alive. Fruster went to reserve kicker Eamon Espy, and the kicker nailed the PAT with 3:04 to play, pulling the Lions to within five at 23-28.

The Lions had to have the ball, and the blue and gold defense knew that. So the unit, following the kickoff after the score, hunkered down and delivered with a quick three-and-out on the Easley offense, which had all but lost its punch. With the Wave kicking from their own 30, Fruster had Peppers back deep to return. The speedster lit up the stadium more than the lightning ever did as he juked and dodged Green Wave defenders all the way down the field and into the end zone for a touchdown with just 1:43 to play. Again Fruster called for a two-point conversion try, hoping to push the Lions to a three-point lead. Batson went over the middle to Swinney once more, and again it failed, but the Lions had jumped on top 29-28.

Now it was all up to Ellison’s defense to win the game and preserve the lead, and the unit did what it had to do, stopping the Wave dead in their tracks when defensive back Malik Watt picked off a Black pass to seal the deal, giving the Lions an incredible come-from-behind victory that was one for the ages.

“I am very proud of these kids,” Fruster said. “They are going to talk about this one for a while. Who knew? I am proud of them for never giving up. I am very proud of the kids — proud of the fight, proud of the heart, proud of my team and proud of the way we fought today.

“But we are still going back to the drawing board on Monday.”

The Lions will have to shake off the big win as they take to the road for the first time this season on Friday night, crossing county lines to face perennial rival Seneca. Although Seneca may be for the first time in years not in the Lions’ conference, the game still means bragging rights for both schools.

“Seneca is not going to be an easy one, but I’ll tell you what — it’s not going to be a game we have to get up for,” Fruster said. “Everybody loves a good rivalry.”

Game time is set for 7:30 p.m. at Tom Bass Field in Seneca.