Late rally by Jasper does in West Orange-Stark

Published 6:31 am Saturday, October 21, 2023

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The West Orange-Stark Mustangs lost a heartbreaker to the Jasper Bulldogs, 41-38, in a district matchup at Dan R. Hooks Stadium on Friday night.

While WO-S held a 17-point lead at one point, it wasn’t enough as the Bulldogs made a late comeback with three unanswered touchdowns.

“My kids fought and fought,” Mustangs head coach Hiawatha Hickman said following the game. “We made some errors, probably on my side, that hurt us as well. We got the big lead and could have probably managed it a little better. We let those guys back in the game. I’m just heartbroken for my kids.”

The start of the game felt like a nightmare scenario for the Mustangs. They lost a fumble inside their own 30-yard line on the second play from scrimmage. Jasper scored following the turnover to go up 7-0.

The Bulldogs then forced West Orange-Stark to punt on the following possession. The punter mishandled the snap with several Jasper defenders quickly approaching.

With no room to boot the ball away, he tried to throw it across the middle — it was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by the Bulldogs.

The Mustangs trailed, 14-0, just six minutes into the game. The tide began to turn soon after, though.

Jalen Gilmore rushed for a 31-yard touchdown to put West Orange-Stark on the board. The defense then recovered a high snap at Jasper’s two-yard line before Tahj Amerson punched it in for another touchdown.

Despite a missed PAT, the Mustangs were suddenly back in the game.

While Jasper scored a special teams touchdown with a long kickoff return, the Mustangs came right back to begin the second quarter when Khelvy Joseph hauled in a short pass and took it 46 yards for a score.

Nicholas Crosson then intercepted a deep pass in the end zone to give West Orange-Stark the ball again. The drive ended in a two-yard touchdown rush by quarterback Marcus Turner Jr. and the Mustangs entered halftime with a 25-21 lead.

Jasper’s offense took the field to begin the second half, but its drive was abruptly ended by Amerson, who stripped the ball and returned it all the way to inside the Bulldogs’ 10. The Mustangs’ lead increased to 32-21 as Turner Jr. threw a four-yard TD pass to William Pitre.

West Orange-Stark then attempted an onside kick, which they recovered to retain possession. Another bold play call worked in their favor soon after — the Mustangs scored a touchdown on a fake punt as Amyrian Scott caught a 38-yard touchdown pass, pushing the lead to 38-21.

However, the mid-third quarter TD turned out to be the end of the offensive fireworks for West Orange-Stark, which didn’t score again for the game’s final 17 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Mustang defense finally began to crack.

Jasper scored three unanswered touchdowns with a 60-yard pass to end the third quarter, followed by a five-yard pass and a two-yard rushing score with under four minutes to go in the fourth. The Bulldogs had seized control and held a 41-38 lead.

Trailing by three points, West Orange-Stark made one final effort to escape with a win.

Turner Jr. converted a key fourth down with his legs, then completed a 44-yard pass to Crosson along the right sideline to set their team up at the Bulldogs’ six-yard line.

However, the Mustangs had under 20 seconds to score and no timeouts remaining. A holding penalty set them back to fourth-and-goal at the 15-yard line before Turner Jr. was sacked on the final play.

The Mustangs fell to 2-3 in 4A-II District 9 (4-5 overall) and remain just within reach of a playoff spot in fourth place. They’ll enter the bye week looking to right the ship before their final game at Hardin-Jefferson, Nov. 3.

— Written by Keagan Smith