Jason Fitzgerald added another solid brick Friday to the foundation of his rebuilding project at Hixson High School.
For the second time in three weeks, a second-half display of guts helped the Wildcats snap a long losing streak, this time beating seventh-ranked Tyner 28-19 for their first win in the series since 1991.
The win kept Hixson (4-2) unbeaten in District 6-AA (3-0) in Fitzgerald's first season heading the program.
Clinging to a two-point lead early in the fourth quarter, and with Tyner riding a wave of momentum after scoring two consecutive touchdowns, Hixson turned a fumble recovery into the game-sealing scoring drive. Converting four third downs into firsts, the Wildcats went 42 yards in 12 plays, taking more than six minutes off the clock before quarterback Gil Brown followed his right guard for a 1-yard touchdown with 4:08 remaining.
Two plays later, Allante Novene sealed the win with an interception to go with his four offensive catches for 129 yards and the game's first TD.
"We're a high-powered, fast-paced offense, but on that last drive we just slowed everything down and took the yards they gave us and kept moving it," Novene said. "If you want to play punch-for-punch with a physical team like Tyner, you have no choice but to get the tough yards and try to hit them with some big plays, too."
The game's first big play came after Tyner muffed a punt and Hixson recovered at the Rams' 48. One play later, Brown hit Novene on a slant, and the anchorman on the state champion 4x400 relay team raced untouched for a touchdown. Two series later, on second-and-9, Isaiah Robinson took a handoff on a dive and darted up the middle, also untouched, for a 56-yard TD, giving the Wildcats a 14-0 cushion.
Tyner, which used 10 ball carriers in the first half, cut the deficit in half when Joseph Sturkey converted a fourth-and-4 by taking a draw play, breaking one tackle at the line of scrimmage, then racing 24 yards for a TD.
After Hixson recovered the short second-half kickoff, Brown connected with Novene for a 36-yard gain to the 2 and plunged into the end zone two plays later on a keeper, giving Hixson a two-score advantage again.
But Tyner answered in six plays, going 50 yards, all on the ground, with sophomore Kalan Hardley scoring on a 1-yard run. The Rams, who had shut out their previous two district opponents, missed the extra point, but after holding Hixson to get the ball back, the Rams began their next series with a 60-yard run by Sturkey and a 3-yard TD by Hardley. The two-point pass failed, however.
Tyner got the ball back late in the third period with a chance to take the lead, but Hixson stopped Haasan Miller on a fourth-and-1 quarterback keeper. After Miller gave the Rams new life with an interception, Tyner fumbled two plays later and Hixson set out on the game-clinching drive, running on 10 of the plays.
"We were just more physical than Tyner in the fourth quarter, and not a lot of people can say that very often," Fitzgerald said. "Maybe the kids are starting to believe, after beating Red Bank two weeks ago and now Tyner, that if they keep playing hard for four quarters, good things will happen for us."
Hixson travels next Friday to defending district champ East Hamilton, the only other 6-AA team without a district loss.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...