SUGAR HILL -- Even with 16 players celebrating Senior Night on Friday night, Lanier is still a very young program.
But with its first full varsity season winding down, the Longhorns grew up in many ways against Lumpkin County.
The offense got plenty of balance, both on the ground with Tario Fuller's 109 yards and a touchdown and through the air with Taylor Grant's 227 yards and a score, as the Longhorns closed out the home portion of their schedule with a 24-7 win.
"To be honest, I think we've been growing up all season," Lanier coach Billy Wells said after the Longhorns improved to 4-5 overall and 2-4 in Region 7-AAA play. "There are certain some moments in the last three or four weeks where we've had opportunities. We've tried to improve on those every week. (Friday) night was certainly a step forward for us."
It was the Lanier defense -- which bent by giving up 243 total yards, but never really broke -- that came up big in a key moment early in the second half to help the Longhorns take that step forward Friday night.
Coming out of halftime with Lanier leading 14-7, Lumpkin County (2-7, 2-4) tried to claim momentum by having kicker Chase Slocumb pop the opening kickoff into the air, with a teammate coming away with possession to give the Indians the ball at the Lanier 42-yard line.
But after Lumpkin County picked up a first down, the Longhorns forced the ball loose from Indians quarterback Daniel McCrary, with Jesse Landers corralling the loose ball to help Lanier dodge a potentially game-changing bullet.
"We talked about being fundamentally sound this week and looking for improvement," Wells said. "Our hat's off to Lumpkin. They played a great game and tried to find moments where they wanted to strategically attack. And they did a good job(starting the third quarter). Fortunately for us, we were able to stiffen up."
Though the Longhorns didn't immediately answer with a score, the turnover made sure they held on to momentum, and after an exchange of punts, the offense grabbed hold of momentum permanently.
Three big plays -- a 22-yard run by fullback Jordan Brannen and completions from Grant to Marty Sanders for 25 and 21 yards -- helped Lanier move into the red zone, where Fuller dove in from a yard out to give the Longhorns some breathing room at 21-7 with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
"It showed that our team will never give up," said Grant, who completed 14 of 20 passes on the night, including seven to Sanders for 119 yards, of the third-quarter drive. "We have push and drive and determination. We wanted this one bad."
As impressive as that drive was, along with a fourth-quarter drive that ended in Mason Harwood's 34-yard field goal that sealed the game with 7:22 to play, Lanier had two even more impressive drives in the first half.
The first came after the Longhorns were backed up to their own 5-yard line by a Lumpkin County punt, with Fuller running for 33 yard on three carries, while Grant completed three passes.
The last of those completions was the big one, with Grant hitting Onyx Berrios on a crossing pattern, and the senior receiver picking up a couple of blocks and outracing the Lumpkin County secondary into the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown.
The play capped an eight-play, 95-yard drive and put Lanier up 7-0 with 4:22 left in the first quarter.
The Longhorns' next drive didn't quite travel that far, only going 71 yards, but was just as impressive by taking up 14 plays and draining 6:55 off the clock.
Grant also finished this march -- this time diving in from a yard out to give the Longhorns a 14-0 lead with 6:16 left in the first half.
"Ball control is a huge deal," Grant said. "We've got to keep (the ball) in our hands so (the opponents) can't score."
But Lumpkin County answered with an impressive drive of its own on its ensuing possession.
The Indians went 80 yards in nine plays, with a 49-yard completion from Daniel McCrary to Jonathan Gilreath being the big play, before Gunner Wood took an option pitch and rolled into the end zone for a 7-yard TD, cutting Lanier's lead to 14-7 with 2:08 left in the half.
The Longhorns tried to strike right back by moving as deep as the Lumpkin County 25, but an incomplete pass on fourth down ended the drive without a score, and the Longhorns went into intermission with the seven-point lead.