After East Hamilton was outscored 79-26 in its first two games this football season, who would've thought the Hurricanes would be in the hunt for the District 6-AA title with two games remaining? The Hurricanes, that's who.
From that rugged beginning, the third-year program is now one victory away from its first league championship. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns Friday led to a 21-18 victory over Red Bank and put East Hamilton on the brink.
The Hurricanes (5-4, 5-1) must beat winless Howard next week to claim the district championship and the Class 4A state-playoff berth that goes with it.
"Our kids have worked so hard for three years," said East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood, whose teams were 1-9 and 2-8 the last two seasons. "They've gone through so much. They don't give up. They keep fighting. Heck, they believe."
Red Bank coach Tim Daniels didn't need to see his team's 11-point halftime lead wiped away by two touchdowns in the final 7:12 to be convinced by East Hamilton's resilience.
"Hats off to that team over there," Daniels said. "We told our kids before we played, 'They never quit. They never stop playing.' It's been like that ever since we've been over here the first time.
"I don't know if our kids came out flat in the second half, thinking it was over. We made a couple of adjustments we thought would be good, but I don't think we played with the same energy level."
Although it made none of its conversions, Red Bank (7-2, 5-1) had a three-touchdown first half, the last score coming with four seconds showing on the clock on a 71-yard pass from Niquia McDuffie to Deres Benn, who took advantage of a defender's ill-timed leap. The Lions' first four possessions after halftime resulted in one first down and four punts.
The fifth was a one-play possession after Red Bank's Trevor Skiles recovered an onside kick after the Hurricanes had cut it to 18-13. McDuffie fumbled on a scramble and East Hamilton's John Dalton recovered at their 35.
Nine consecutive rushes, the last by Dallas Hammond from the 5, put the Hurricanes in front, and he added the conversion run.
Red Bank's last gasp came to an end at midfield when blitzing linebacker Austin Gatewood brought down McDuffie with a sack on the final play.
"That was big," Coach Gatewood said of his son's timely play. "We needed something to happen. They've got kids that can make plays."
East Hamilton's leading rusher on the season, Logan Jackson, was nursing an ankle sprain but got in for one play. It was an 8-yard scoring run for the Hurricanes' first points of the fourth quarter.
Lamond Greer and Hunter Parker shared the bulk of the rushing load with starter Greer ending up with 87 yards on 18 carries and Parker leading with 93 yards, also on 18 carries. Parker also threw a halfback pass to Tre Herndon that covered 36 yards for the team's first-half touchdown.
McDuffie had 149 yards passing at halftime and ended with 183. Benn caught three passes for 98 yards and had an interception.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.