ATTICA - Put in a position no coach ever wishes to be in, Jeremy Nutter admitted it was hard coming up with the right things to say to his players.
On Thursday, Hopewell-Loudon student Cameron St. Clair, a former football player, died. Less than a day later, his friends and former teammates were on the field trying to win a football game.
Nutter was asked if the Chieftains considered not playing Friday night.
Nutter paused before answering.
"If I know Cameron, and I think I do, I think he'd say to us that we need to get out here and play this game," he said. "These are kids; that's what they deserve, and I know their hearts are heavy, but it feels good for a little bit to be out here playing the game we love."
The Chieftains not only played, but played well, using a power running game and some big plays on defense to beat Seneca East in Attica, 27-19.
H-L (5-3, 3-2 Midland Athletic League) overcame a Seneca East touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. SE quarterback Ethan Caudill hit Brayden Walker for a 65-yard touchdown, giving the Tigers a 6-0 lead 16 seconds into the contest. SE missed the extra point.
But Hopewell-Loudon needed less than three minutes of game time to answer. A 36-yard completion from Derek Runion to Ryan Lommerse set up a Cody Malone touchdown, and the Chieftains took a 7-6 advantage.
Caudill went right back to work, marching the Tigers to the H-L 8. But on a first-and-goal, Caudill was intercepted by Zach Clouse in the end zone.
"At that point I had no illusions that we were going to keep them under 80 [points]," Nutter said of the SE offense. "It was a scary situation to be in, but we finally stepped up and made that play. Zach Clouse made a great play right there. He's one of our senior leaders."
Hopewell-Loudon went up 14-6 when quarterback Derek Runion faked a handoff to Malone and went 6 yards for a TD early in the second quarter.
Seneca East's offense again struck quickly. This time it was a 54-yard pass from Caudill to Alex Scheiber to make it 14-13 with about eight minutes left in the half.
Scheiber had 149 receiving yards at the half. Caudill had thrown for 223 yards. But the Tigers (4-4, 2-3) had only 13 points to show for it at the break. H-L led 14-13 at intermission.
"We had a couple plays ... we just left them on the table," Seneca East coach Ed Phillips said. "The table was set there to go."
In the third quarter, Hopewell-Loudon - and Malone specifically - picked away at the SE defense. The Chieftains took the opening kick of the second half and held the ball for more than seven minutes. No play went for more than 12 yards, but H-L methodically marched down the field, converting on a pair of third downs and using Malone for eight punishing runs. His final one, a 2-yard burst, put the Chieftains up 21-13.
"You're frustrated, because we just couldn't get them off the field," Phillips said.
The Chieftains weren't done. After forcing Seneca East's offense into a three-and-out, H-L ran eight more plays, keeping the ball as the quarter drained to its conclusion.
Final third quarter tally: H-L offense 21 plays, SE offense three.
Nutter said that was about the only way he knew to slow down the Tigers scoring attack.
"I don't know any other way to beat them," Nutter said, "except to not let them have the ball."
Three plays into the fourth quarter, Runion scored his second rushing touchdown, this one from 11 yards out, and the Chieftains went up 27-13.
The teams traded possessions over the next 4 1/2 minutes. With H-L driving and with the clock crawling under six minutes, it looked like the game was over.
But anyone who's seen a Seneca East game this season knows better. An errant shotgun snap was recovered by Walker, and three plays later Seneca East was in the end zone, as Caudill found a wide-open Scheiber in the end zone for a 7-yard score. The Tigers again missed the extra point, but were down just eight with a little more than five minutes remaining.
Seneca East's defense forced a punt, but the Tigers couldn't manage a first down, and H-L had the ball with 1:12 to go.
But Phillips had all three of his timeouts, and used them in consecutive plays. When Runion was stopped on fourth-and-1 with 52 seconds left, SE had one more chance. It started at its own 35.
"I just told these kids, they're such a high character group of kids, and they're never out of it," Phillips said.
But Lommerse stopped the rally, intercepting Caudill on the first play of the drive. Hopewell-Loudon ran out the clock and won.
"We needed that defensively, because (the Tigers are so difficult to defend)," Nutter said. "It seems like they've got 15 [players] out there instead of 11 sometimes.
"I had no sense of comfort whatsoever," he said. "But Ryan Lommerse made a heck of a play."
Lommerse had 83 yards receiving to go with his pick, and Runion threw for 202 yards. Caudill threw for 288 yards, and Walker had 102 receiving on just two receptions.
But in the end, what happened on the field was secondary.
"My heart goes out to [H-L's] community," Phillips said. "I told the kids after the game (the loss) is hard, but it's not as hard, but it's not as tough as what life will hand them."
"Our hearts are broken for Cameron's family," Nutter said. "Our our thoughts and our prayers go out to them."