DACULA -- Hebron ball on the 46. It's fourth down and 5 long yards to go. Just 1:19 left in the game. The Lions trail 29-27 on Senior Night.
First-year coach Battaglia would love nothing more than to see his young team finish 5-5. This group of 10 seniors would love nothing more than to go out with a win.
Snap. It's a quarterback keeper toward the home sideline. A gang of Towns County defenders converge on junior quarterback Lew Stephens at the Indians 42 and-a-half yard line. Stephens arm lunges for the Promised Land as he's brought down in a clash of helmets and knees. Out come the chains and hushed goes the crowd. The Lions' season has ended about an inch short of a miracle.
Hebron Christian could not complete its goal of a .500 record after two costly turnovers and a heartbreak drive sunk the Lions on Friday in a 29-27 loss to Towns County (2-8).
The Lions came into the game having won their last two games after struggling early in the season, so expectations were high heading into the matchup with the sputtering Indians. Battaglia expected his team to hit .500.
"I have to tell you I did expect to win this game, "Battaglia said. "We had a great week of practice, and the kids stayed focus, but we were a little flat at first.
Both teams seemed to struggle to get their bearings. The Lions and the Indians found little luck in the air all night, but it was Hebron's running game that finally kicked off the scoring late in the first quarter. Senior running back Xavier Railey broke through the Indians' line for a 54-yard sprint to the end zone with 4:15 left in the first quarter. Senior Harrison Dunahoo's kick made it 7-0 Lions.
Towns County responded with a 4-minute possession that ended with a 22-yard touchdown run through the middle of the Lions' defense that knotted the score at 7-7.
In the second quarter, the Indians took control with a drive that would dictate the outcome of the game. After a three and out by the Lions, Towns County marched 61 yards up the field for the go-ahead touchdown. An encroachment penalty on the Lions as the Indians attempted the point-after put the Indians close enough to complete a 2-point conversion. The Indians led 15-7.
On the ensuing drive, Stephens had trouble finding open receivers and scampered 55 yards for the second Lions' touchdown. Hebron attempted to tie the game with a 2-point conversion but Stephens pass was incomplete to sophomore Matthew Glisson. This left the Lions down by two and came back to haunt them at the end.
A 66-yard sprint by senior Noah Calhoun put the Indians in position to score with 2:21 left in the first half. Railey fumbled on the Lions' next possession, but the Indians responded with their own turnover one play later. Hebron took advantage and, on 79-yard run from Railey, finished the half down 22-20.
Towns County opened the second half in command after recovering a fumbled kickoff to the Lions. After a quick touchdown put the Indians up 29-20, they again used a short kickoff to force another Lions turnover. Hebron exacted some revenge with a forced fumble at its own 23-yard line to keep the Indians at bay. The Lions scored again with 9:16 left in the game on a 4-yard scramble by Railey.
Railey finished with 20 rushes for 240 yards, and with the game on the line in the closing minutes of the matchup, forced the Lions into Indians' territory with rushes of 9, 4 and 24 yards. This set up Stephens' mad dash for the game-saving first down. After the chains left the Lions' season an inch short, the Hebron sideline screamed for another measurement after some thought that the clip had been moved on the measurement. After a few minutes of Hebron's pleading with the referees, Towns County finished ran out the clock to finish the game.
"I wasn't really looking [at the clip]," Battaglia said. "It looked to be that the clip was moved up, which extended the first down. It was close. I wasn't sure we really got it anyway but it was really close. We're talking about an inch in a game of inches."
Stephens finished the game with five rushes for 81 yards and no completions through the air.The team gathered in an emotional final huddle that left many players visibly distraught.
"I'm so proud of my team," senior captain Tyler Smith said. "We've worked so hard. All of my guys stepped up, even the freshman, who are 14 year olds trying to hit 18 year olds. That's a tough task, but they stuck with it and I'm proud them.
"It stinks we didn't go 5-5, but we left it all out here and I have no regrets."
Railey said his band of seniors left a legacy of perseverance.
"Our legacy is that they never saw us quitting," he said. "Even when we were down we just kept fighting. We never stopped believing in each other and it's so hard knowing that we were just inches away. But our legacy is that we never quit."
Battaglia said his seniors took charge of their leadership roles this year.
"I really owe a lot to those seniors who gave tremendous leadership this year to those young kids," Battaglia said. "Tyler Smith and Xavier Railey. Those seniors have been special. They are leaving a great legacy behind for the young kids."