Coach Darren Waters is trying to keep a lid on the growing hoopla surrounding the Licking Heights High School football team. But after a convincing 36-16 win over visiting West Jefferson on Oct. 12, there’s an undeniable sense that something special is happening.
A dominating second half moved the Hornets (8-0, 5-0) one step closer to an undefeated regular season and an MSL-Cardinal Division championship.
West Jefferson (6-2, 4-1), which has tormented Licking Heights in recent years, was seen as the big hurdle in front of both those goals – psychologically as much as physically.
“They’re Division V, but that’s not how we look at them,” Waters said of West Jefferson. “They’re on par with some of the best teams in the area, some of the best teams in the state really.
“We talk about one win this week, then one win next week, and so on, because we’ve been hurt in years past by looking too far ahead. We still have work to do to close this thing out, but this is a big, big win for us.”
Licking Heights, which plays in Division II, hadn’t beaten West Jefferson since the Roughriders joined the MSL-Cardinal in 2006. None of the games had been closer than 10 points.
On Oct. 12, a similar result looked to be in the offing, although it was a sloppy game on both sides. The teams combined for 18 penalties (nine each) for 169 yards, and there were numerous other miscues.
West Jefferson’s penalties in the first half led to two peculiar situations. Late in the first quarter, the Roughriders turned a first-and-goal at the 5 to a third-and-goal at their own 46-yard line. Late in the second, they backed themselves into a third-and-54 play.
Still, the Roughriders had a 10-7 lead at halftime. But the second half was all Licking Heights.
The Hornets recovered a West Jefferson turnover at the Roughriders’ 29 and scored four plays later on a 12-yard run by Josh Ausberry to take a 14-10 lead.
Licking Heights favors a rugged ground game with multiple ball carriers, but it was their passing game that helped them pull away in the third quarter. On a third-and-22 play, Hornets quarterback Taylor Curtiss found Douglas Benniefield for a 27-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-10.
“We use our passing plays only when we need them,” Benniefield said. “I think we were running the ball so much at that point, that maybe they weren’t expecting it. That’s why it worked.”
West Jefferson pulled to 21-16 on their next drive on a 3-yard pass from Seth Casto to Logan Stepp, but it wasn’t that close for long.
A 2-yard TD run by Ausberry made it 29-16 with 4:56 to play, and Benniefield struck again – this time on defense – to seal it. He stepped in front of a Casto pass at the start of the next drive and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.
“I might always remember both plays, but the touchdown pass I caught feels like it was a little more special,” Benniefield said. “We all worked so hard for this. It felt great as a team to see that.”
Waters plans to spend this week keeping expectations and excitement in check, he said.
“Two more weeks in the regular season,” he said. “We’re playing hard and we’re playing together as a team, but we can get better.”
Finally, he relented, but only a little bit. Asked about closing in on the MSL-Cardinal title, he said, “You know, it would be nice to hang a banner in the gymnasium.”
LH -- Carruthers-Kimball 43 run (Hall kick)
WJ -- Hatfield 2 run (Mendenhall kick)
WJ -- Mendenhall 37 FG
LH -- Ausberry 12 run (Hall kick)
LH -- Benniefield 27 pass from Curtiss (Hall kick)
WJ -- Logan Stepp 4 pass from Casto (pass failed)
LH -- Ausberry 2 run (Carruthers-Kimball run)
LH -- Benniefield 30 interception return (Hall kick)