As the clock wound down past the one-minute mark of the first half, the Huntsville Hornets appeared in danger of letting Willis climb back into Friday’s season opener.
Latel Sweat changed that real quick.
With Willis trailing by five and driving into Hornet territory, Huntsville senior defensive end Briceon Hayes tracked down Wildkat quarterback Steele Bardwell and ripped the ball loose. Sweat — a senior linebacker making his first career start at the varsity level — picked up the fumble and took it 67 yards to the house, putting the Hornets up 34-22 and dashing any hopes their Interstate-45 rival had of a comeback.
“Getting a big fumble recovery like that really turned us on,” Huntsville senior Tyrique Carter said.
The offense responded — Sweat’s touchdown rumble marked the first of 28 unanswered points for the Hornets — while the defense locked down to pitch a second-half shutout. And just like that, what looked Week 1 barnburner moments earlier swiftly evolved into a 55-22 rout.
IN PHOTOS: Huntsville Hornets vs. Willis
“It’s sweet … that’s all I can say right there,” Huntsville senior cornerback Kobe Lewis — who pulled down a pair of second-half interceptions, including one in the end zone — said of the Hornets’ dominance over the rival Wildkats.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Huntsville’s victory was the way the team responded to moments that could’ve easily flipped momentum in Willis’ favor.
The Wildkats jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, as a 40-yard reverse pass on the second play from scrimmage sparked a 90-yard touchdown drive. The Hornet defense allowed just seven first downs the rest of the way.
Huntsville senior quarterback Matthew Southern tossed a pair of 30-plus-yard touchdown passes to put his team ahead 14-7, but exited the game late in the first quarter with an ankle sprain. Carter and senior receiver Will Barnes split the action behind center for the rest of the game — and after overthrowing a pair of potential touchdowns, Carter found his groove, throwing for two scores in the third quarter and rushing for another in the fourth.
Senior running back Cameron Myers never flinched, leading the Hornet offense with two first-half rushing touchdowns and hauling in one more to ice the game with 5:08 remaining.
“The biggest thing is handling adversity,” Huntsville head coach Rodney Southern said impressed him most about the win. “Matthew got hurt, Will and Tyrique had to play some (at quarterback) and we gave up some big plays defensively — which we don’t usually do. The expectation level defensively is so high … but sometimes people are going to make plays.
“I thought overall, especially in the second half, to hang in there and fight like they did … and Tyrique hitting a couple deep balls was the difference. You’re going to have adversity. You just have to know how to handle it.”
With a motto of ‘All the Way’, referencing a hopeful state title run, confidence has never run short for a Huntsville squad that boasts 32 seniors. But after fighting through adversity en route to a 33-point beatdown of a hated rival, the Hornets are feeling themselves even more.
“Us as teammates inspire each other every day, and this boosts our confidence even more,” Carter said. “Beating a team like this makes us know we can go all the way.”