By REID TUCKER
The Freeport Bulldogs didn’t know they were in for a war when they stepped off the bus in Mobile, Ala. to face St. Luke’s Episcopal, but that is without a doubt what they got.
Although the Bulldogs (3-1) took home a close 49-40 win on the night of Sept. 23, they had to climb back from a 20-12 deficit at halftime to do it. St. Luke’s (1-4) is no slouch in the scoring department, having lost by 50-48 to Marengo High the previous week, and the Wildcats made devastating use of three successful on-side kicks to get a jump on the visiting Bulldogs in the first half.
While Freeport made steady progress with a Gabe Moore touchdown with 5:45 to go in the third, the Wildcats’ offense had the run of the field until Nick Russell recovered a fumble from St. Luke’s quarterback Hunter Kirksey less than a minute later. The turning point came soon after, as Freeport QB Gabe Moore ran 17 yards up the middle for the go-ahead score.
The Bulldogs turned on the heat and poured on three more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats hung on, trailing by no more than two points until the last minute of the game. A win wasn’t in the bag until Moore scored the last of his four touchdowns with a scant 56 seconds left in the game.
The numbers reflect just how close the game was. Freeport had 0 passing yard but racked up 449 yards rushing thanks in large part to some epic scoring runs from Owen Cole (224 yards in 14 carries) and Moore (136 yards in eight carries). St. Lukes’ Kirksey was 22-for-32 and passed for 216 yards, while George Payne had 177 yards on the ground in 32 carries.
Freeport coach Jim Anderson was almost as sweaty as his players by the end of the game and with good reason – the physicality of St. Luke’s squad shocked him as much as it had the Bulldogs on the ropes in the first half. However, his players regained their composure after the half and turned in a sterling performance in one of the higher-scoring games in recent memory. Anderson said the game was a good reminder of how important maintaining focus is to a team’s success.
“I was really proud of the guys,” Anderson said. “The second half we stepped up and did what we had to do but in the first half we were not focused. Our guys have to be better than that because we’re not such a highly talented team that we can come out and not focus and still hope to beat [a good team]. We’ve got to focus from the first play to the last.”
After making use of the first on-side kick to start things off, St. Luke’s went on a 48-yard scoring drive with Payne crossing the goal line with 7:28 still to go in the quarter. Though another successful on-side kick put the ball back in St. Luke’s hands on the 35-yard line, the gambit did not pay off for the Wildcats as a failure to convert on fourth down. Both teams had the ball and elected to punt once each before Freeport scored on a 49-yard run from Cole with no time left on the clock.
Freeport trailed 7-6 at the start of the second quarter but Kirksey hit Lane Andrews with a 15-yard pass in the end zone just two-and-a-half minutes into the period and Payne made good on a 20-yard run to cap off an 80-yard drive from the Wildcats. Freeport blocked the kick afterward but St. Luke’s still led 20-6 with only :39 to go in the half. Freeport took possession on their 41 and, with :20 seconds to go, Moore broke away from the defenders and ran 59 yards for a touchdown, though the conversion attempt was no good.
St. Luke’s came out strong once again in the third quarter, scoring on a 17-yard pass to Drew Favors, but Freeport responded with another touchdown run, this time for 32 yards, with 5:45 to go. Then came Russell’s fumble recovery and another TD run from Moore. With James Leogrande providing back-to-back two-point conversion attempts, Freeport took the lead 28-27 with 1:10 left in the period.
The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair as Brandon Head scored on a 35-yard run and Moore rushed for the conversion three plays after the Bulldogs intercepted a pass from Kirksey on St. Luke’s first play from scrimmage. St. Luke’s came back with a nine-yard run from Kirksey and a point after kick from Thomas Stubblefield. Freeport took possession of the ball on their 25 with 6:40 to go and Cole bounced off the line to sprint the remaining length of the field for his second touchdown of the night.
Minutes later, the Wildcats scored again on a short two-yard run from Payne to make the score a too-close-for-comfort 42-40. St. Luke’s once again nailed an on-side kick on the Bulldog 48-yard line but the offense was held to a fourth-and-22 on their 39. Moore needed little more incentive to score again after Freeport forced a turnover on downs, and he ran 26 yards for his final touchdown to seal the deal for the Bulldogs.
St. Luke’s coach Eddie Guth would have liked to get a win, but he was nonetheless proud of his team, which is comprised of only freshmen, sophomores and juniors as the school has only been open for a year. Because they can’t out-muscle many of their opponents, the Wildcats rely on special teams, Guth said.
“We’ve kind of had to learn to survive as this school grows into a high school, us not having seniors and everything,” he said. “We try to do everything we can to have an edge and special teams is part of that.
“They work very hard and they don’t know any other way. The odds have been against them so many different times that the only thing they know how to do is to go back to work.”