It did not take long for Bearden High School to get a stranglehold on its playoff hopes.
Needing a victory over cross-town rival Hardin Valley to stay alive in the postseason race, the Bulldogs scored three touchdowns in the opening five minutes of Friday’s matchup en route to a 42-3 drubbing of the Hawks.
“Every year you put a circle around this one on the schedule, so we’ve been looking forward to this all week,” senior Sam Coffin said. “They put a whooping on us last year at home, but this year we were ready for them. We came out fired up and ready to get physical and that’s what we did.”
The Bulldogs (5-4, 2-3 Region 1-6A) wasted little time putting that energy to good use, scoring on their opening drive with a 47-yard touchdown catch by sophomore wide receiver London Stephney from sophomore quarterback Collin Ironside.
A long kick return gave Hardin Valley (4-5, 2-3) an opportunity to respond, but Bearden stuffed three consecutive runs to standout running back Aaron Dykes to force a field goal.
The senior’s struggles running the football did not stop there. He was limited to 24 yards on 15 carries, his lowest output of the season, which played a major part in the Hawks only registering 91 yards of total offense.
“He’s a very dangerous threat every time he touches the football, but we’ve had a very stingy defense all year,” Bearden head coach Morgan Shinlever said. “We knew they had it in them to stop him, and boy did they show up tonight and do their job.”
Ironside linked up with junior running back DJ Cox down the field for a 76-yard touchdown, and on the first play of Hardin Valley’s ensuing drive, freshman quarterback Zak Acuff fumbled and junior defensive back Kahlil Abdullah scooped it and scored to give Bearden a 21-3 lead with seven minutes and one second remaining in the first quarter.
Bearden tallied three more scores — a second touchdown catch by Stephney and touchdown runs by Cox and Coffin — to close out a victory in what amounted to a playoff game in the regular season.
The Bulldogs will clinch a playoff spot with a victory over Morristown West or a Hardin Valley loss to Farragut next week now that they own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“They did a tremendous job all week preparing and they still believed in themselves because they knew they hadn’t played their best football yet,” Shinlever said. “With their backs against the wall, they answered the call.”
“We’re a young football team and we didn’t come out to play tonight,” Hardin Valley head coach Wes Jones added. “It’s very disappointing. We came out here to play a cross-town rival and got beat 42-3. We made a bunch of penalties, turned the ball over and just didn’t play very hard.”
Ironside completed 12 of his 14 pass attempts for 225 yards and three touchdowns, posting a season-high in both completion percentage and passing yards when the Bulldogs needed a win most.
“He is one of those kids that is consummate leader — he comes in and leads with his actions,” Shinlever said. “He stepped up in the pocket and took one on the chin on that first touchdown pass, and that just shows that he is resilient and tough.”
Bearden proved that it is resilient, as well, snapping a four-game losing streak to its rival on the biggest stage it has been on this season.
With their postseason hopes on the line, the Bulldogs played their best game of the season, giving them momentum toward a potential playoff-clinching matchup versus Morristown West and what could be on the horizon afterward.
“We’ve always had confidence in ourselves, but at times throughout the year we haven’t played consistently,” Shinlever said. “When you are able to finally put together a full four quarters of football, it really makes you feel good because now you see what you are capable of.”