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Seneca quarterback Jordan Bender had slipped away from Shelby County's defenders all night.
Branden Cresap had just passed to Edwin Thomas in the back of the end zone for a touchdown after escaping a collapsed pocket to put the Rockets (2-1) ahead.
Now, holding a 31-30 lead with about 3 minutes to play, the Rockets' defense had to contain Bender, a wily, dual-threat playmaker.
With just three plays, he marched the Redhawks (2-2) from their own 8-yard line out to the 35, and that’s where it finally happened.
Shelby County’s Nigel Beach got a hold of Bender, and this time he couldn’t slip away. Beach finally pulled the QB down with a little help, causing a 14-yard loss with about 2 minutes remaining in the game.
Still the Rockets needed one more stop. Bender moved Seneca to within 4 yards of a first down, and on fourth down he took off.
Ben Axline, in the game to protect mainly against the pass, put a punishing hit on Bender and stopped the Redhawks from getting the first down.
The Rockets took over on Seneca’s 30-yard line and finished the game by taking knee.
“That was a big relief,” Beach said. “We’d been after him all night, and we’d been close, but he’s real elusive. But there’s no let-up in this team.”
The Rockets trailed most of the game, and based on the statistics it still seems improbable, that Shelby won.
Seneca had more first downs, more rushing yards, more passing yards and nearly a six-minute advantage in time of possession, but the Rockets’ came up big when it mattered.
Thomas set up the final score with a 62-yard kickoff return.
With SCHS trailing, 30-25, Thomas took the kickoff at his own 2-yard line and burst through the right side, fighting off several would-be tacklers before finally being brought down at Seneca's 36.
That continued his work throughout the game, with his 125 yards on three kick returns giving Shelby good field position all night.
“The fourth quarter is our quarter,” Beach said. “We’re well conditioned because the coaches push us. We know we have to keep going, and if we’re close in the fourth we’ll be there.”
Although he said there were several mistakes on both sides of the ball, SCHS Coach Todd Shipley noted several big moments where the Rockets made plays.
“We stepped up in certain situations that paid off in the end,” he said. “Cresap, on fourth-and-goal from the eight, eludes several rushers and hits Eddie [Edwin Thomas] coming across the back of the end zone; we hit an extra point in the third quarter, but they [Seneca] jump off-sides so we decide to go for two and get it; and Axline makes the big hit on their fourth down.”
Axline was making his return after suffering a concussion in the season opener against Bryan Station. The big wide receiver not only came up with a key defensive stop, but he was Cresap’s favorite target on offense as well. Axline caught a pass in the middle on the second play of the game and went 52 yards for the score. He finished with seven catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our plan was to ease him back into the game,” Shipley said of Axline. “But I think it was about the second play of the game where we realized we needed him out there and that he looked OK.”
After Axline’s score to open the game, Seneca scored twice to take a 14-7 lead. Matt Nakatani kicked a 35-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10, but the Redhawks added another score to take a 21-10 lead into the break.
Axline caught his second TD to start the scoring in the second half, but Seneca answered with a 19-yard field goal.
The Rockets took a brief lead, 25-24, after Thomas scored on an 8-yard run late in the third quarter. Seneca regained the lead, 30-25, with a 37-yard touchdown pass with just 6:16 left to play.
The victory gave the Rockets’ back-to-back triumphs for the first time since Shelby County won four in a row during the 2007 regular season and playoffs.
“This was a big for us,” Beach said. “Beating a Louisville school is a whole different breed. Everybody says they have the best athletes in the state.
"So this was a statement. It’s not all about speed and athleticism. It’s about will power and playing good football, too. We showed them a county school can come in here [in Louisville] and win.”