It came down to the final seconds of the game.
The Gainesville defense delivered another dynamite second-half performance and coerced several monumental turnovers with the game on the line.
But still the Wichita Hirschi Huskies had a chance to tie the critical District 4-4A game.
A Leopards’ pass interference penalty gave the Huskies the ball at the Gainesville 39-yard line and the next play Hirschi moved the ball to the 19-yard line.
The Huskies made one grave error in the process.
An illegal procedure penalty on the offense confused the Huskies. They were unable to get their field goal team onto the field for the game-tying attempt in the waining moments of the game and Gainesville was able to hold on for the 24-21 victory Friday, Oct. 18, at Leopard Stadium.
The Leopards are now 7-0 on the season for the first time since their 11-win 2013 campaign and 2-0 in district play for the first time under head coach James Polk.
“I’ve been talking about the defense all year,” Polk said. “They don’t get enough credit. They work hard and today’s game is all about offense and how many points you can score. If you can keep today’s offenses under 28 or 24 points, you’ve done a dang good job. Once again, we got a pick and a fumble recovery. We’re winning the turnover battle and that’s the most important thing.”
Polk said the final minutes of the game were tense moments.
“Naturally I was worried, but I know one thing, our kids are mentally tough and I always tell them that other teams practice too,” Polk said. “They’re going to make some plays, but what you can’t do is drop your head and psych yourself out. They didn’t have any timeouts left and they had too many people on the field.”
The Leopards’ offense was led by senior running back Brandon Baker, whose 42-yard and 63-yard touchdown runs were the plays that broke the Hirschi defense.
Each defense stepped up to start the game.
First, Gainesville’s defense forced the Huskies into a 3rd-and-30 before eventually forcing a punt to its own 11-yard line.
On the Leopards’ first drive of the game, they were hurt by their own penalties and had to punt to Hirschi’s 29-yard line halfway through the first quarter.
Gainesville’s defense backed up their first stand with an even quicker one on the Huskies’ next possession.
A 3-and-out led to a punt Hirschi’s own 42-yard and the Leopards struck while the iron was hot.
The first play on their second drive was a Baker 42-yard touchdown run up the middle of the Huskies’ defense to give Gainesville a 7-0 lead with 4:01 left in the first quarter.
Hirschi’s offense woke up on its next drive as the Huskies put together a 10-play, 68-yard drive that culminated in a 5-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7-7 with 1:01 left in the first.
Gainesville went 3-and-out on its next possession, but the defense bowed up by forced Hirschi to turn it over on downs at the Huskies’ 47-yard line.
The Leopards stalled again on offense and Hirschi took advantage again as the Huskies added a 34-yard field goal with 4:30 left in the first half to take a 10-7 lead.
Needing a response, the Leopards broke loose with the second big play of the game. Gainesville quarterback Traylen Shinault found wideout Isaiah Gipson on the inside post route for a 54-yard touchdown to restore the Leopards’ lead to 14-10 with 2:47 left in the half.
However, the Huskies had one more answer.
Taking the ball from their own 34-yard line, they quickly drove down the field using a crucial 33-yard reception to move the ball into Leopards’ territory at the 42-yard line.
Eight plays later the Huskies leapfrogged back on top with a 14-yard touchdown. A successful 2-point conversion pushed Hirschi up 18-14 with eight seconds left in the half.
Hirschi recovered the onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, but couldn’t add to its four-point lead.
The Leopards had a sloppy start to the second half as they were sacked on their second play and the eventually lost a fumble at their own 42-yard line.
Gainesville’s defense provided the offense with some momentum as the Leopards forced Hirschi into a 3-and-out and punt to the Leopards’ 29-yard line.
The Leopards needed just three plays to spring another highlight reel play.
Baker, looking hampered by injury in the first half, broke out of his silent streak and loose for a 63-yard touchdown run up the middle of the Hirschi defense to put Gainesville on top at 21-18 with 6:16 left in the third frame.
The defense kept wearing on Hirschi.
Another forced punt gave the ball back to the offense at the 33-yard line, but the Huskies earned their best field position of the night by stopping Gainesville on fourth down for a turnover at the Leopards’ 41-yard line.
Gainesville’s defense held yet again on the Huskies’ next drive as Josh Faughtenberry delivered the clutch sack on the Hirschi 3rd-and-12 to force a punt that was swiftly returned to the Hirschi 42-yard line.
The Leopards stalled in the red zone, but they were able to come away with a 33-yard field goal from Jaime Guerrero to take a 24-18 lead with 10:33 left in the game.
A costly 49-yard run by Hirschi on its next possession quickly gave the Huskies life at the Gainesville 11-yard line.
The Leopards’ defense answered the bell again and held Hirschi to a 35-yard field goal to cut the lead to 24-21 with 8:23 left.
Hirschi picked up a wealth of momentum as Izaiah Baker fumbled the kick return at the Leopards’ 28-yard line.
J.D. Harrison restored possession for Gainesville as two plays later he recovered a fumble at the Leopards’ 31-yard line.
Despite being forced to punt, the Leopards defense struck gold again as CJ Feagins had the first interception of the game at their own 24-yard line after a penalty with 4:41 left in the game.
The Huskies burned all three of their timeouts and had one last crack at tying the game that fell by the wayside.
Patrick Hayslip can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PatrickHayslip