All of Catholic High School’s momentum could have dissipated in a few seconds.
The Fighting Irish entered the locker room at halftime with a 28-10 lead, but Rhea County quickly trimmed that lead down to 11 points after returning the second-half kickoff for a touchdown.
Catholic’s confidence, however, never wavered.
The offense kept churning, responding with three consecutive touchdown drives en route to a 49-24 victory over the Golden Eagles on Thursday.
“I think this is a solid group of guys that like each other,” Catholic head coach Steve Matthews said. “They still like football, which sometimes is tough this time of year. Having been through the gauntlet we’ve been through, they know how to respond and I’m excited about where we are heading.”
Whether it be the tough loss to Maryville, the comeback victory against Soddy-Daisy or the pair of drubbings at the hands of Eagle’s Landing Christian (Ga.) and Brentwood, that gauntlet has forced Catholic (4-3, Region 4-5A) to face plenty of adversity, so the second-half kickoff return was just more of the same.
Senior quarterback Jack Sompayrac capped the initial response with a five-yard scamper into the end zone, and followed that up by finding senior wide receiver Cam Blakely for their second touchdown connection of the game.
Junior running back Ray Thompson added the Fighting Irish’s third touchdown of the second half with his first career rushing score, giving Catholic a 49-17 lead over Rhea County (3-4, 2-1).
“We basically played a perfect game offensively, minus the penalties,” senior offensive lineman Cade Mays said. “It was a great game.”
Facing a Wing T offense that thrives on controlling the football, Catholic knew it had to get out the gates quick.
The first play of the game showcased that urgency as Sompayrac found senior wide receiver Dashon Bussell for a 43-yard gain. Moments later, the two linked up again, this time in the end zone for the opening score of the game.
It was a sign of things to come.
The Fighting Irish scored on each of their first seven possessions, their only failures offensively coming late in the game with the victory already in hand.
Sompayrac fueled that offensive performance, racking up 236 yards and three touchdowns on 13-for-16 passing while also rushing for 112 yards and two more scores on 12 carries.
“The key was to score quickly and really let them know that we were going for the throat,” Matthews said. “We were really able to move it well on them tonight. … We thought they would struggle with our passing game going in. Jack is really starting to progress and so we’re excited about where we are heading on offense.”
Before the season, Mays stated that Catholic would win its second state championship in three years following a disappointing 2016 season.
It has been a difficult road to traverse early in the season, but the Fighting Irish think they are right on track. They believe those tests will make them better in the long term, and they plan on proving that in the immediate future.
“Last year, we didn’t have a strong strength of schedule like usual and it obviously hurt us in the playoffs,” Mays said. “We hadn’t played full games and that led to us not being in shape in the playoffs. This year, we’re in tip top shape already, so it is only going to get better.”