Sam’s best not enough
If only high school football had instant replay.
As the clock ticked down under 10 seconds Friday night in Ramsey, with the home team ahead 38-35, Salem hurriedly lined up at the 9-yard line and got the snap off before the clock hit 0:00. And just as he had done all game, quarterback Jordan McNeely faked an option hand-off before finding a hole himself and taking it all the way to the goal line where he was stood up and dropped by North Harrison defenders.
But who won?
After a few seconds of waiting, both sides figuring they had just secured a Mid-Southern Conference win, an official signaled touchdown and the celebration was on for the visiting Lions.
While most of the fans and players wearing royal blue and white thought McNeely was stopped short, officials told North Harrison representatives a fumble occurred and Salem recovered it in the endzone to end the wild, 41-38 contest.
The loss put a damper on junior running back Sam Best’s school-record performance of 371 yards rushing.
‘I did what I had to for the team,’ Best said. ‘We gave it our all … but that’s the way it goes.’
Best said the Cougars’ offensive line was spectacular opening up holes for him.
‘This is going to sound bad, but it’s not really that huge of a deal to me,’ Best said of his big night, which was announced as an unofficial school record in the fourth quarter. ‘I wouldn’t be nothing without my teammates.’
Bryan Schroeder held the previous single-game record after piling up 367 yards as a sophomore in 2005 against Paoli on only 16 carries.
North Harrison coach Mark Williamson was not surprised by Best’s video-game like numbers.
‘I’ve been around him too long; I know what he’s about,’ he said. ‘He’s got the mentality of an athlete. He believes in what we’re doing, both in the weight room and on the field.’
Best also played the majority of the game on the defensive side of the ball as linebacker.
The loss dropped North Harrison to 0-2, both home conference losses, and improved Salem to 2-1, 1-1 MSC.
‘Hats off to Salem,’ Williamson said. ‘We kept pounding them, and they kept coming back. We needed this game, and Salem needed this game. And it showed by how hard they played.’
After a three-and-out to start the game by the North Harrison offense, neither team could stop the other as McNeely and Best provided the fireworks.
McNeely scored first, on a 12-yard run, with 8:05 remaining the first quarter. North Harrison responded with a long scoring drive, covering more than eight minutes, that ended with a Jack Phelps touchdown to knot the game at 7. The drive also included runs from Best and Austin Nevil, and Phelps connected through the air with Nevil for a big fourth-down conversion.
Salem wasted no time responding, as McNeely scored on the next play from scrimmage. It took North Harrison all of 21 seconds to respond with a Best 26-yard touchdown run, but Phelps’ extra-point try was off, and Salem had a 14-13 lead.
It took a little longer for Salem to answer the next time as McNeely scored on a 10-yard run with 8:23 remaining in the half.
Going into the season, Williamson said he thought McNeely was the best player in the conference. McNeely did everything he could Friday night to prove his opposing coach right.
‘He was the real deal,’ Williamson said. ‘He broke tackles; he runs their offense perfectly.’
Best quickly answered McNeely’s score with a 67-yard scamper up the right side, where he found a hole and ran away from the Lions’ defenders. Trying to make up for the missed extra point, North Harrison went for two and failed, leaving the score at 21-19.
North Harrison finally got a stop on defense with Austin Reynolds breaking up two consecutive McNeely passes in the end zone. Best again broke free on the right side of the line for an 83-yard touchdown to give the Cougars the lead, 25-21, and all of the momentum, after another failed two-point conversion attempt with just more than a minute remaining.
Cougars defensive back Lee Manwaring made sure the momentum stayed with his team as he picked off a McNeely pass near midfield along the out-of-bounds line. With 27 seconds remaining, Williamson elected to take a knee and head to halftime with the lead.
In a game full of big plays, the biggest one may have come on Salem’s first drive after the break. Looking to build on the end-of-half momentum, North Harrison had Salem backed up with a fourth-and-14 at the Cougars’ 32. That’s when McNeely rolled to the left and launched a perfectly spiraled throw that Christian Lamb was able to catch up to in the end zone for a touchdown.
The connection looked like a play meant for Saturday football, not Friday night.
After the extra point, Salem was back in front, 28-25.
North Harrison then went on one of its long, bruising, clock-eating drives on the ground. It ended six minutes later with Best collecting his fourth and final touchdown with two minutes-plus remaining in the third quarter.
On the ensuing kick-off, North Harrison stripped the ball from the return man and had an excellent opportunity to jump on the ball and secure possession inside the Lions’ red zone, but Salem eventually recovered the slippery pigskin on its own 2-yard line. After a couple of first downs, the North Harrison defense held to give the Cougars the ball and the lead. But the Cougars’ drive stalled after a long Best run was called back for a holding call (on the opposite side of the run).
Salem regained the lead (35-31) on a halfback pass to a wide-open Lamb for a 36-yard touchdown with 7:06 remaining in the game.
North Harrison took over looking to complete the game-winning drive by eating up the clock with the ground game. The Cougars did so, behind Best, Phelps and Nevil, but scored a little quicker than Williamson wanted when Phelps took it in with 2:24 remaining, leaving plenty of time for Salem to complete the thrilling and controversial ending.
The teams matched each other with six touchdowns, but the difference came in the extra-point category where Salem was a perfect five-for-five (no attempt was needed on the game-winning score with no time remaining). North Harrison only connected on two extra-point attempts (missed two and failed on two two-point conversions).
North Harrison finished with 429 yards rushing to Salem’s 311. Salem also had 162 yards through the air.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Cougars in the next couple of weeks, as North Harrison will hit the road for back-to-back games against conference heavyweights Charlestown and Brownstown.
‘We’ve invested too much; we’re not going to roll over,’ Williamson said. ‘They know we’re getting better. We’ve just got to go play … keep pounding. There’s no other choices.’
Salem 7 14 7 13 ” 41
North Harrison 0 25 6 7 ‘ 38