November 22, 2009 12:14:00 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
RIDGELAND -- Maybe now the haters will believe.
All week, the New Hope High School football team heard how its season was going to end Friday at Ridgeland.
The talk was that the Trojans weren''t going to be able to stop the Titans'' high-powered offense.
Some people probably wondered whether New Hope should even make the two-and-a-half hour trip south to suffer such a disheartening loss.
But believers have a way of making things happen.
On Friday, New Hope added another statement to a growing list of accomplishments as it defeated Ridgeland 28-21 in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 5A North Half State playoffs.
The victory means New Hope (11-1) will play host to Region 1, District 2 rival West Point (12-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Trojan Field for a chance to play for the Class 5A state title.
West Point beat New Hope 35-8 on Oct. 2, a victory that ultimately helped it win the district.
New Hope has rebounded from that loss to win its last seven games in a row. Three have come by shutout in less than favorable playing conditions, while victories against Hernando and Callaway came in gutty fashion.
You can add the Ridgeland win to the latter list.
"We''re making a statement for New Hope football," senior defensive lineman Seth Stillman said. "The offense made a statement tonight and the defense came up with a big stand. There is no other feeling like it in the world."
New Hope used plenty of drama to advance. With less than three minutes remaining, quarterback Zak Thrasher completed a fourth-and-5 pass to Johnny Beamon for 26 yards that helped the Trojans extend their lead to 28-14.
But Ridgeland (10-3), which earned its first playoff victory in school history last week in a 44-34 come-from-behind victory against Hernando, needed only eight plays and 1 minute, 29 seconds to go 80 yards. Brantley Adams'' 5 yards pass to Hunter Lohman and his extra point kick made it 28-21 with 1:18 to go.
The Titans then recovered the onside kick and took over at the New Hope 40 with 1:16 left. Shadick Horton''s 6-yard gain on first down proved to be the final yards of the night for the Titans. Adams threw two incompletions and then was swarmed by Stillman, senior Devin Turner, junior Curtis Shirley, and sophomore Horace Carr on fourth down for no gain to seal the victory.
Stillman agreed the final defensive play epitomized the Trojans'' team approach. He said it also was even more satisfying after listening to all of the talk about Ridgeland.
"There are a bunch of doubters for New Hope football," Stillman said. "There is a bunch of people who said Ridgeland would have their way with us tonight, that they would score as many as they wanted. I was told there was no way we could stop it and that we were weak. We made a statement tonight. Maybe that will prove to some people we are real."
In the first half, it looked like Ridgeland would add to its playoff victory total. The Titans held the ball more than 15 minutes and used the running of Horton (27 carries, 139 yards) to move up and down the field.
The Titans'' effectiveness quieted the Trojans on their side of the field. Stillman tried to pump up his teammates by saying, "It''s only 7-0. It''s not like it is 40-0."
Stillman encouraged his teammates to have confidence and believe they would find their rhythm and slow the Titans.
A couple of mistakes by the Titans helped the Trojans. A fumble in the first quarter killed a Titan drive, as did another fumble in the third quarter. The second one was even more painful because it came at the New Hope 9. The Trojans then drove 13 plays for a score that helped them take the lead.
"This is a game of Ridgeland Titan missed opportunities," Ridgeland coach Kenny Burton said.
Thrasher said New Hope''s come-from-behind 34-33 victory last week against Callaway gave it the confidence to know it could rally from a seven-point deficit. The junior helped show the Trojans how to do it with a momentum-changing drive at the end of the second quarter. A sack by Terrance Payne on first down helped the Trojans hold the Titans to three-and-out and get the ball back at their 42 with 49 seconds remaining.
A 12-yard gain by Terrance Dentry (24 carries, 92 yards) moved the ball to the Ridgeland 44 and set up a 33-yard pass by Thrasher to Lawrence Brown that gave the Trojans a first-and-10 from the 11 with 19 seconds to go. Thrasher got out of bounds after gaining 4 yards on first down. Dentry then capped the drive with a 7-yard score with eight seconds left.
"I thought that big drive right before the half was absolutely critical," New Hope coach Michael Bradley said. "It showed us we could move the ball and it showed us we could execute on offense. I thought it set the tone for the second half."
Thrasher capped a 13-play drive with a 10-yard spin pass to Dentry. Tanner Ryals'' extra point made it 14-7 with 3 minutes, 49 seconds to play in the third quarter.
Ridgeland ate up the final 3:38 of the third quarter on a 10-play drive that stalled inside the New Hope 25 on an incomplete pass.
The Trojans capitalized again, even if Beamon was a step or two slow. With seven seconds remaining in the quarter, Thrasher handed off to Beamon, who came in motion from the right. The 5-foot-7, 150-pound junior got to the corner and raced 78 yards to help give New Hope a 21-7 lead.
"My idol is (Dexter) McCluster from Ole Miss," Beamon said. "He is the man I want to be like when I grow up. When McCluster turns the corner, he is fixin'' to score, and that''s what I did. I went and scored."
Said Bradley, "Johnny is a great football player. We hadn''t run very much wide on them all night. We were able to do that on that play. We were just trying to run one play and go into the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead and Johnny took it to the house."
Bradley credited wide receivers Daniel Gregory and Franklin Richardson Jr. for providing great blocks on the outside to give Beamon an alley of green.
Beamon said he went in motion on "hut." He said he spotted 6-7 offensive lineman Ryan Hollivay and did his best to get behind him because he knew he would have a clear path.
Thrasher said Beamon was supposed to come in motion a step or two earlier, which is why he didn''t know if the play was going to work.
"When I handed the ball off I was thinking he came too late and I didn''t think he was going to go very far," Thrasher said. "I thought somebody backside was going to get him, but he went outside and got through a little hole and he just took it all of the way."
Ridgeland nearly blocked Ryals'' extra point after Beamon''s score, which factored into Bradley''s thinking when New Hope faced a fourth-and-5 from the Ridgeland 26 with 2:53 to play. Bradley said he knew Ryals could make a field goal from that distance, but he didn''t want to risk it. Instead, he and his coaches brainstormed and came up with the perfect play.
"We felt they would be stacking the box to try to stop the run and pressing the wide receivers," Bradley said. "We decided to go to ''Pop Special,'' where we fake the pop and throw the ball over the middle, and it was wide open."
Thrasher executed the play perfectly, looking to his right and then lofting a touch pass to Beamon, who ran past a defender to catch the pass.
"I saw they were coming to blitz. I guess they thought we were going to run it," Thrasher said. "There was no free safety and that just left Johnny wide open. I just went with it. I really didn''t have any doubt he was going to catch it."
The Trojans also didn''t doubt they would make a final stand on defense. There were some nail-biting moments, but they proved again if you believe anything -- even the improbable -- can happen.
"If you don''t have haters you aren''t doing anything," Beamon said. "We have haters, so we must be do something. I don''t remember the last time New Hope went to North Half State, so we''re changing it around, and we''re going to keep on doing it."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.