There was a definite confusion throughout Greenback High School’s sideline in the first half.
With head coach Greg Ryan back at home serving a one-game suspension after being ejected in last week’s loss to Grace Christian Academy, the Cherokees were struggling to adapt.
Players held their arms up on the field and looked toward their coaches as they tried to figure out a way to combat a mounting deficit against Coalfield, their top Region 2-1A foe.
“Whenever we are out there, we look for him on the sidelines,” Greenback junior quarterback Bryce Hanley said. “He’s our leader and when we didn’t have him, it kind of shook us up a bit. We managed to settle down, though, and just went back to playing Greenback football.”
What followed was a second-half rally that erased a 27-7 hole with four minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter en route to a 34-33 victory on Thursday.
“We’ve been state runner-up the past two years, so they have played in a lot of big ballgames and they have played a lot of football,” Greenback offensive coordinator Brent Kilpatrick said. “They expect to win and they come out here and they are going to keep fighting and playing hard.
“The culture Coach Ryan has created here, he doesn’t even have to coach effort because he knows he is going to get 100 percent out of them every day, and I think that says a lot about him and what he does.”
The comeback was sparked by a 64-yard connection between Hanley and junior wide receiver Seth Riddle and finished by junior running back Breeden Gilbert.
Following a touchdown pass from Eastern Kentucky commit Parker McKinney to Ashton Jones that gave the Yellow Jackets (7-1, 4-1 Region 2-1A) a 27-7 lead, the Cherokees (6-1, 3-0) responded with an improvised play drawn up in the huddle to creep back in the game.
Riddle faked a slant, creating some separation with his hesitation move before darting upfield. Hanley tossed a pass down the sideline and Riddle jumped to make the catch over a Coalfield defender before sprinting into the end zone.
“We did a play similar to that in the first half, but we actually drew that one up in the dirt,” Hanley said. “We tried to fake them into doing something and it ended up working.”
Just like that, Greenback had life and Gilbert took care of the rest.
He brought the Cherokees within a score with a 6-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, and responded to a Yellow Jacket touchdown with another score, this one from three yards out.
Those touchdowns set up the finale one possession later.
Having already worn down Coalfield’s defense with several physical runs over the past few drives, the junior took a direct snap and raced toward the Greenback sideline. Once he got into the open field, he plowed through a pair of would-be tacklers before finding pay dirt, putting the Cherokees up with a powerful 58-yard touchdown run.
“Once he gets to that second level, he is hard to tackle and people don’t like to tackle him,” Kilpatrick said. “We stuck with him and obviously it worked.”
Gilbert rushed for 123 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries. Hanley completed nine of his 17 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown.
“We took it personally to step up because we are the leaders of this team,” Hanley said. “That’s what we thought we had to do to help the team win.”
The victory places Greenback atop the Region 2-1A standings and extends its winning streak over Coalfield to four games.
If history is any indication, though, this matchup may be revisited later down the road. These two teams have played each other in the playoffs four of the last five years, with last year being the only time the Cherokees have eliminated the Yellow Jackets.
“I really can’t believe we won, but it was a huge win because my class has not lost to Coalfield,” Gilbert said. “We want to keep that way until we are gone.”