GENEVA – The stars answered the bell immediately when Geneva County visited county rival Geneva on Thursday night.
The Bulldogs’ Emmanuel Henderson exploded for a 49-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage.
The Panthers’ Kahari McReynolds answered less than three minutes later with a 29-yard keeper off right end.
Eventually, Geneva prevailed 34-26 in a game that showed both teams have more weapons than their headliners – but at crunch time everyone knew who was getting the football.
Henderson, unofficially, had 20 carries for 144 yards and touchdown runs of 49 and 4 yards. He also returned a kickoff 64 yards for a score, returned another one 42 yards and brought back a punt 38 yards.
McReynolds may have been even better. Playing mostly at quarterback in place of the injured Damion Kemmerlin, McReynolds, unofficially, ran 22 times for 289 yards and touchdowns of 29, 10, 15 and 3 yards. He also intercepted a pass and made a key tackle in open space on Henderson’s 38-yard punt return.
“Henderson is just electric,” Geneva coach Les Sanders said of the Bulldogs’ sophomore. “You can be in the right spot and he’ll make a cut. He’s just that good.”
McReynolds was special, too.
“We talked all week with our injuries – quarterback was out, center was out. We had five out last week and got three of them back, still had two out,” the coach said. “We talked all week, ‘You can’t be tired. In a game like this, you’re going to have to play every play. You’re going to be tired, you’re going to be nauseated, you’re going to be hot, you’re going to be hurting. You’ve just got to go. That’s part of it.”
Sanders said his defense had trouble settling into the game, but added the opposing team had something to do with that.
“They put a lot of pressure on you. We just didn’t execute, but a lot of that’s Hartford,” Sanders said. “In the first half we did everything we could do not to get off the field. It was going to be a fourth-and-13 and we get a facemask. Then it’s third-and-six and we jump offsides and make it third-and-1.”
The first half saw seven touchdowns – five in the first 7:35.
With the game 6-all, a 33-yard completion from Geneva County quarterback Cole Saunders to Keaton Enfinger set up the Bulldogs on the Panthers 4. Henderson scored around left end on the next play. The PAT made it 13-6 with 5:17 left in the first.
The Bulldogs (1-1) had a chance for even more momentum when Hunter Adams recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. But on the next play, McReynolds intercepted Saunders’ overthrown pass for Jackson Stewart and returned the ball to the Panthers’ 44.
On the next play, running back Dylan Creech – who missed last week’s jamboree but was one of the returning players – took a handoff from McReynolds off right tackle, cut to the outside and went 56 yards to the end zone. McReynolds’ two-point run at left end put the Panthers up 14-13.
“They called my number and I’m gonna pull through,” Creech said after the game. “I got my brothers’ backs and they’ve got mine.”
The lead didn’t last long. Henderson took the kickoff around his 35, broke from the middle of the field to the left sideline then weaved his way across the field to the right sideline, gathering yardage and breaking tackles on the way to the end zone. The play covered 64 yards but he ran for many more than that to give the Bulldogs a 19-14 lead at the 4:25 mark of the first quarter.
Geneva (1-0) was driving toward a score but a pass into the left flat was ruled a lateral and Geneva County recovered and took over on its own 24. The Bulldogs then seemed to take command of the line of scrimmage on an impressive 16-play drive. The march included two fourth-down conversions and ended when Saunders scored standing up on a quarterback sneak from the 1. The extra point gave the Bulldogs a 26-14 lead with 5:41 left in the first half.
The Panthers responded. Creech broke loose on a 32-yard run and McReynolds finished the drive with a 10-yard scamper to the end zone on third-and-7. His run for two failed, but Geneva got within 26-20 at the 2:18 mark.
It stayed that way through halftime.
Few would have guessed at that point, but the Panther defense shut out the Bulldogs in the second half.
“They had 26 halfway through the second quarter,” Sanders said. “We really didn’t make much of an adjustment, just some lining up, but our kids fought hard. It was a great high school game. Geneva County’s got a great team. They’re well coached.”
There was just no stopping McReynolds, who had nine carries that gained 15 yards or more.
He had gains of 16 and 18 yards on a drive that ended with his 15-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. His two-point run off right tackle put Geneva up 28-26 with 1:56 left in the third quarter.
And when it came time to win the game in the fourth, the senior made the defining play. On a keeper off left guard, McReynolds got through the line, but a Bulldog grabbed his shirt tail. He pulled away, cut sharply right and another defender dove for him – perhaps getting a shoelace – as he turned the corner. McReynolds went 68 yards before KenLi Preyer knocked him out of bounds at the Geneva County 3.
McReynolds didn’t leave the field. He scored around right end on the next play for a 34-26 lead with 10:20 left in the game.
“It was a great play,” Sanders said of his quarterback’s run. “That was the game winner.”
“He’s an unbelievable athlete,” Creech said of McReynolds. “Everybody sleeps on him. They think he’s not all that and he just balls out. He’s just as elusive as (Henderson).”
The Bulldogs threatened twice more. Colby Fuller grabbed a pass from Saunders for a 29-yard gain to the Geneva 12 on a fourth-and-12 play. But the Bulldogs fumbled on the next play as Creech made a jarring hit and stripped the ball out. The Panthers recovered on their own 5 with 7:36 left.
Geneva took the clock down to 3:51 before Creech deliberately punted out of bounds – keeping it away from Henderson – at the 47.
On their final possession, the Bulldogs were facing third-and-3 at the Geneva 18. Henderson was stopped on a run up the middle by a penetrating Creech.
“We knew we couldn’t sit on our heels,” Sanders said of the last two plays. “During the timeout we said somebody’s got to make a play. Dylan made the play.”
Creech said he knew Henderson would try up the middle over right guard on third down.
“Our team’s been watching film. I saw it coming,” Creech said. “They’d been running it the whole game. I called my number and blitzed and I got his legs. That boosted us.”
On fourth down, Dayton Landingham stopped Henderson a yard short of a first down with 35 seconds left in the game. Geneva took one snap and the clock ran out.
Unofficially, Cole Saunders was 9-for-20 for 100 yards passing for Geneva County. Preyer and Will Birdsong both had 7½ tackles. Preyer had two for loss and one of Birdsong’s was behind the line of scrimmage.