Bears Almost Topple Toppers
Senior Daniel Clark goes up and over a topper defender
by JOE CANNON Banner Assistant Sports Editor
JOHNSON CITY — Bradley Central's football team sure knows how to make an exit.
For the second straight year, the Bears went into the TSSAA playoffs with a .500 record and were a huge underdog against a highly-ranked opening round opponent.
Just as they did last year against eventual state champion Maryville, Bradley gave sixth-ranked Science Hill (10-1) all it could handle for 48 minutes in a 59-47 shootout Friday on Steve Spurrer Field in Johnson City.
"I couldn't be prouder of a team," proclaimed head coach Damon Floyd after his ninth sleuth of Bears put up more than 500 yards of offense and seven touchdowns. "We came up here and let it all hang out. We left nothing in the bag."
"We're disappointed we lost. We came up here to win. We knew we'd have trouble stopping their offense (which is the third-best in the state averaging more than 50 points a game), but we felt like we could compete with them and that's what we did."
Unfortunately for the Black-and-Gold, the high-octane Hilltopper offense exploded for 636 yards and eight touchdowns to advance to the second round.
Like the visually-handicapped Mr. Magoo cartoon character with a rhyming last name, quarterback Malik McGue continually turned difficult situations into stunning plays while accounting for 440 of Science Hill's yards. The senior's career-night included 275 yards on 28 carries, including four trips to the end zone, plus he completed 13-of-20 passes for 165 yards and two more scores.
"We knew from what we'd seen on film, we were going to have trouble stopping him," remarked Floyd. "We hit him 15 times in the backfield and he got away. He's only 5-foot-7, but he's extremely quick and hard to bring down."
While the slippery signal caller garnered most of the attention, the night's first score went to junior running back Justin Bedard who broke free on a 49-yard dash to paydirt on the fifth Hilltopper snap of the evening.
The game's next three scores went to the Bears on a 14-yard passed from Cole Copeland to senior Christian Hamilton, and a two-yard run by the sophomore quarterback for a 13-7 advantage when the first quarter horn sounded.
Bradley stretched their lead to its highest point on the first play of the second frame.
After stopping Science Hill on a fourth-and-1 play, the Bears took possession at their own 41. Hamilton then turned what looked like an eight-yard loss on a failed halfback pass into a brilliant 44-yard run that included several spins, broken tackles and a hurdle to the 'Topper 14. Copeland carried the rock across the goal line on the next play for a 12-point edge.
The hosts answered with three straight scores of their own, including five- and 51-yard pass plays from McGue to Elijah Mathes to cap 75- and 61-yard drives.
McGue wrapped up a 236-yard half (99 rushing and 137 passing) with a two-yard plunge to top off a 67-yard march with 1:54 left before the break.
Despite going from a dozen-point advantage to trailing by nine, the undaunted Bears retook the lead with a pair of touchdowns in the final 18.8 seconds of the opening half.
The first came on 62-yard march that included 44- and 17-yard passes from Copeland to junior Tyler Carpenter, the latter of which found paydirt.
On the ensuing pooch kickoff, the 'Toppers mishandled the ball and Bear junior Ryan Still pounced on the loose pigskin at the 40-yard line with 14.4 ticks showing on the clock.
Bear offensive coordinator Keith Freeman called for a flea-flicker pass, but after Carpenter got the ball on a reverse he was hit immediately by a defender.
The junior all-around athlete was able to break free and chuck the throw to fellow receiver Daniel Clark at the 10-yard line. The senior had to snap the ball off a defender's helmet and out battle him for possession. Clark then fended off another would-be tackler to fight his way into the end zone with no time left on the clock.
Senior Logan Snyder's PAT kick capped a 41-point quarter and put the Bears up 33-28 at the intermission.
The third quarter belonged to the home team as Science Hill overcame having a 60-yard kickoff return wiped out by a penalty and then another five-yard flag before getting off a snap.
The 'Toppers used 11 plays to cover the needed 85 yards with McGue carrying the ball over from the 4 to retake the lead.
After forcing the Bears to go three-and-out, McGue found the end zone again from 10 yards out to cap a seven-play, 55-yard march to push the difference back to nine points.
The next Bradley drive stalled at the Hilltopper 38, and three plays later McGue was off to the races once again, but this time Still was able to catch him for a TD-saving tackle at the 6-yard line after a 41-yard gain. Inspired, the Bear defense rose to the occasion, forcing the hosts to settle for a 26-yard Alex Rinella field goal three plays later.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Bear offense cranked back up in the final frame finding the end zone twice. The first on a seven-play, 67-yard drive, capped by a 21-yard pass from Copeland to Hamilton with 9:12 to go.
After the hosts answered in just two plays on a 39-yard dash by McGue, the second Bradley drive took 13 plays and more than five minutes off the clock with Copeland plunging in from the 1.
Down by five points with just under two minutes remaining, the Bears were on the verge of getting a chance for the win when Science Hill lined up for its first punt of the game, but were able to draw an offsides penalty to get a first down and retain possession.
Three plays later, Bedard, who had scored the night's first touchdown, added the final one on a 33-yard run to give him 117 yards on just 10 carries for the game.
Despite trailing by a dozen points with only 87 ticks remaining, the Bears weren't ready to throw in the towel and marched from their own 12 to the 'Topper 47 before the final horn sounded.
"This (the strong showing) is nothing new to Bradley. We've proved over and over we can play with the top teams in the state," declared Floyd. "We only have 11 seniors (compared to 28 for SH), so we've got a lot of good players coming back."
Copeland finished the night with 124 yards and three scores on 23 carries, plus he complete 26-of-38 passes for another 287 yards and a trio of touchdowns. He wrapped up his first season at the Bear helm with 3,177 total yards, finding the end zone 30 times on a dozen carries and 18 aerials.
"The second half of the season you could see the light go on for Cole as he began to understand what we were needing out of him," praised Floyd in reference to the Bears' three-game winning streak during which they scored 118 points.
Hamilton had another 100-yard night with 53 yards on 10 carries and another 61 on four catches, two of which found the end zone. The speedster went over the 1,000-yard mark (576 rushing, 437 receiving) to wrap up his prep career.
Carpenter, who for the second time in the last few weeks not only caught a TD pass, but also threw one to Clark, added to his area-leading receiving numbers with 85 yards on four receptions pushing him to 848 and eight scores on the campaign.
Clark surpassed the century mark Friday evening with 106 yards on nine catches, upping his season tally to 587 and eight TDs as well.
Bryan Adams wrapped up his final Bear season with seven catches for 57 yards, pushing him to 248 on 31 receptions this year.
The game marked just the third meeting between the teams, which has now produced 278 combined points. The Bears won by scores of 78-20 and 50-20 in 1999 and 2000.
It also served as a preview for what's to come for Bradley, as Science Hill will be one of seven new league opponents for the Bears beginning next season.
As part of the "Super 32" the two squads separated by 190 miles, will be joined by Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett, Jefferson County, Maryville, William Blount, Hardin Valley and Bearden in Region 1-6A according to the TSSAA recommendations that came out Friday.
Science Hill will face arch-rival Dobyns-Bennett (9-2) Friday in a rematch of last week's Big Seven Conference championship game, which the 'Toppers won 49-35. The ninth-ranked Indians punch their ticket for the second round with a 35-31 over Morristown East Friday.
The winner will more than likely face top-ranked Maryville (11-0), which won its 26th straight game Friday with a 48-0 shutout of Walker Valley.
The 14-time state champion Rebels will take on Sevier County (8-3), a 28-20 victor over Hardin Valley, Friday. Maryville thumped the Smoky Bears 38-3 during the regular season.
Read more: Cleveland Daily Banner - Bears almost topple Toppers