Friday, October 14, 2011

Willis lifts Rockets into Class 2A playoffs

LA CENTER, Ky. – Crittenden County's football season went from zero to 35 in a hurry Friday night at Ballard Memorial.

QB Travis Gilbert hands off to Bryce Willis (35) who follows
the blocking of fullback Zach Tinsley (44).
No. 35 that is.

That would be Bryce Willis, who only a few hours earlier had been feeling the drain of a 103.4-degree body temperature brought on by strep throat. It didn't matter though. Willis posted 260 all-purpose yards and scored three touchdowns to make sure his Rockets will finish no worse than third in the Class 2A First District.

Crittenden beat Ballard 28-14 under some pretty extreme circumstances, none any more acute than an illness that hit the senior running back the day before this crucial league matchup.

"I've been pretty sick. The doctor gave me a shot and some pills yesterday," Willis said with a grimace that told the real story.

Truth is, the narrative would have never included Willis bailing out. No, not at this point when his team was down to just 18 players and its back was to the wall. This, remember, is a team he once quarterbacked. Now, with injuries, disciplinary issues, defections and suspensions, Crittenden needed him elsewhere. Rocket coach Al Starnes has said all year that Willis is one of the most unselfish players on the team. He just wants to win, the coach has said.

Win, it did, and on a stage that could have played like a Shakespearean tragedy. Coach Starnes said his team was as short-handed as any had been in his 21-year tenure at CCHS. The Rockets put 11 guys on the field and there were only nine in reserve. It could have been a recipe for disaster.

"It's still our best 11 against their best 11," Willis said. "There were some expectations, and I think we exceeded what everyone expected."

Inspired by the arduous task at hand, the few and proud Rockets turned in a heroic defensive effort that held Ballard to just 88 yards rushing. Although its secondary was stretched at times – for two touchdowns and 127 yards – it was an interception by safety Clint Asbridge that sealed the deal with 40 seconds left.

Cornerback Noah Dickerson (23) jams Ballard receiver
Devoun Bledsoe at the line of scrimmage.
It was clear early in the game that Willis – who had deferred the QB position to backup sophomore Travis Gilbert a week earlier – was prepared to take this one on his shoulders. He lined up at tailback and fullback, rushed for 189 yards on 28 carries and caught four passes for 71 yards.

Willis put Crittenden ahead with two second-quarter touchdowns on a 10-yard pass from Gilbert and a 15-yard run where he pulled three defenders across the goal line. From there, Ballard was in catch-up mode the rest of the way. The Bombers' passing game brought them close. The hosts were within seven to start the fourth period, but the Rocket defense held firm. Pressure on the passer forced some bad throws, and coverage by backup Crittenden cornerbacks Noah Dickerson and Jamie Atwell was sure enough to stave off Ballard's late challenge.

For Starnes, this may have been one of sweetest wins in two decades.

"We needed this. We needed something positive after all of the negative things we've had," he said. "These kids played through adversity and I have never been more proud of a group than this bunch of guys."

The victory means Crittenden County, 3-5 overall and 2-1 in district play, can pull off a show-stopper next week when it hosts Caldwell County. The Tigers had seven turnovers in a loss to Murray Friday, making their showdown with the Rockets a game for second place in the league.

The victory at Ballard was especially critical. A loss might have eliminated Crittenden from the playoff scene altogether. Something that hasn't happened in ages.

Crittenden County    0    14    7    7
Ballard Memorial      0     7     7    0

CC-Bryce Willis 10 pass from Travis Gilbert (Micah Holloman kick) 10:08, 2nd
CC-Willis 15 run (Holloman kick) 4:22, 2nd
BM-Devoun Bledsoe 35 pass from Trevar Langston (Jonathan Steele kick) 3:21, 2nd
CC-Zach Tinsley 15 run (Holloman kick) 9:03, 3rd
BM-Jay Bo Sadler 10 pass from Langston (Steele kick) 0:00, 3rd
CC-Willis 27 run (Holloman kick) 2:31, 4th

First Downs: Crittenden 18, Ballard 11
Penalties: Crittenden 1-5, Ballard 3-15
Rushing: Crittenden 44-278, Ballard 21-88
Passing: Crittenden 8-15-1, 128 yds., Ballard 10-21-1, 127 yds.
Total Yards: Crittenden 406, Ballard 215
Fumbles/Lost: Crittenden 0-0, Ballard 0-0

Crittenden-Willis 28-189, Tinsley 12-71, Gilbert 4-18. Ballard-Fontez Hill 11-73, Alek Hugen 9-21, Langston 1-(-6).
Crittenden-Gilbert 8-15-1, 128 yds. Ballard-Langston 10-21-1, 127 yds.
Crittenden-Willis 4-71, Jamie Atwell 2-43, Bobby Knox 2-14. Ballard-Sadler 4-45, Dre Beldsoe 2-22, Devoun Bledsoe 2-43, Hill 2-17.
Asbridge 5 solos, interception; Atwell 5 solos; Bebout 4 solos, 2 assists; Clark 3 solos, 3 assists, TFL; Cozart 4 solos, 2 assists, sack; Dickerson solo; Gilbert 2 solos; Knox 4 solos, TFL; Mayes 2 solos, 2 assists; Tinsley 6 solos, 3 assists, TFL; Willis 2 solos, 5 assists.
Pizza Hut Players of the Game: Offense Bryce Willis, Defense Zach Tinsley, Lineman Stephon Cozart, Special Teams Bryce Willis.
Records: Crittenden 3-5 (2-1), Ballard 3-5 (0-4)