NORTH AUGUSTA — In a game where some of the state’s biggest offensive stars put on a show that will long be remembered, it was a sophomore junior varsity kicker that decided the final outcome.
Adrian Leon, who was called upon to handle the kicking duties when Gray Griffin injured his groin in pregame warmups, booted a 23-yard field goal with three seconds left to give Class AAAA No. 2 Lexington (7-0) a 59-56 victory over Class AAAA No. 4 North Augusta (6-1) Friday at Jackets Stadium in a game that lived up to the buildup.
“Good things happen to good people who work hard,” said Lexington head coach Scott Earley of the victory. “This was, by far, our worst game, but when you come on the road and play bad and still win, that’s a characteristic of a champion.
“What I like about that kid is that he grew up tough and has ice in his veins,” he added of the game-winning kick. “I trust him with my life.”
Both teams had chances to put the game away in the closing minutes.
Lexington celebrated what it thought was a game-changing interception with fewer than 90 seconds left on the clock when South Carolina commitment Shaq Roland intercepted Tyrell Hillary deep in Lexington territory, only to realize that North Augusta had called a timeout just before the play.
On the very next play from scrimmage, it was North Augusta that was celebrating when Vinny Miller took a screen pas from Hillary down the NAHS sideline and cut it back across the field for a 31-yard touchdown run that would have given the home team a touchdown lead with 1:12 to play. That play, though, was also brought back because of a holding penalty.
The play that finally did decide the back-and-forth contest came after North Augusta stalled out on its final drive, thanks to a pair of holding flags, and punted the ball to Lexington at the Wildcat 34-yard line. Four plays later, on a first-and-10 from the NAHS 41-yard line with 15 seconds on the clock, Lexington quarterback Will Hunter found Roland streaking down his own sideline, where he out-jumped Yellow Jacket defensive back Devin Grimes and hauled in an acrobatic catch 3 yards from the end zone with seven ticks remaining.
The officials ruled Roland had caught the ball in bounds but rolled out of bounds, stopping the clock.
Lexington took a delay of game and then brought Leon onto the field for the game-winning kick.
“He’s one of the best receivers in the country,” said NAHS head coach Dan Pippin. “And he just made a big play at the end of the game. He’s a Shrine Bowl guy for a reason.”
The frantic finish only added to the instant classic that saw two of the state’s best teams combine for 115 points and more than 1,000 yards of offense. North Augusta led 42-28 at halftime thanks to a Vinny Miller touchdown run in the first quarter and 35 second-quarter points. Tyrell Hillary connected with three different receivers for four second-quarter touchdowns – he finished the game with 380 passing yards and five touchdown passes – and Devin Grimes made what looked like it would be the defensive play of the game with a 17-yard touchdown return for a score.
Lexington quickly evened things out in the second half, though, scoring on a 71-yard drive on its second possession of the third quarter and then taking advantage of a Lance Cook interception of a tipped Hillary pass when Roland - who finished with 49 yards on the ground and 182 through the air – took a sweep off tackle and cut it back across the field 34 yards for a score, tying the game at 42-all.
North Augusta pulled back in front when Vinny Miller scored on a 16-yard screen pass, picking up a key block from Jake Whitley on his way to the end zone, and the Jackets caught a break on Lexington’s next score when Leon’s extra point clanged off the upright, leaving North Augusta up one, 49-48.
Vinny Miller scored again, this time on a handoff, from 31 yards away with 5:41 left to play, but Lexington answered with an 8-yard touchdown run from Kevin Miller, and it tied the game when Hunter hit Jalen Cook on an out route for the 2-point conversion with 3:12 left to play.
That set up the exciting and controversial finish that will be debated in the days and weeks ahead in both communities.
“It was a great high school football game,” said Pippin, whose team was also hurt when it was flagged for a roughing the passer on what could have been a crucial fourth down stop in the second half but eventually ended in another Lexington touchdown. “It was a high-scoring game. I can’t say much, because I’ll get fined if I say what I think. You don’t want to see certain people be involved either way, and it’s not just my team.”
“We refused to lose, but it was a great game,” Earley agreed. “With the offense we run and the players we’ve got, we always feel like we have time to score.”
North Augusta will try to get back on track when it travels to White Knoll (4-3) Friday.
“Them cats there are probably the biggest overachievers in the state of South Carolina,” said Earley, giving praise to the Jackets. “That’s a good team that’s going to be in ‘The Little 32,’ and Goose Creek and Greenwood better look out.”
Lexington, which now has the inside track on the Region 5-AAAA title with the win over the Jackets, will be at South Aiken.
“I’m glad we don’t have to play them again,” said Pippin, returning the praise. “That’s a heck of a football team.”