The grass-stained white jersey of Sincere Staples and his slow gait as he walked toward the Walnut Ridge High School football team’s bus spoke volumes of the load he carried when it mattered most Oct. 20.
“Coach just told me to run hard and hold on to the ball and the line would do the rest,” said Staples, a junior tailback who gained 233 yards on 31 carries and scored three touchdowns as the Scots beat host Marion-Franklin 36-28 to remain undefeated and clinch a share of the City League-South Division title.
Staples gained 48 yards on a 13-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter drive that concluded on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by the punishing 5-foot-9, 185-pound back with 2 minutes, 38 seconds remaining. The Scots (9-0 overall, 5-0 in City-South) failed to convert the two-point conversion but held Marion-Franklin (7-2, 4-2) on downs to come away with the hard-earned win.
“Sincere just gets better and better as the game goes along, and we wanted to ride him in the second half,” Walnut Ridge coach Byron Mattox said. “When we took over at our own 20, we told the guys on the sidelines, ‘Let’s finish ’em off with a championship drive,’ and that’s just what we did. I couldn’t be prouder with the way we delivered when we needed to.”
Qian Magwood’s second interception of Red Devils quarterback Ke’Zion Brown midway through the third quarter put the Scots in position to regain the lead in the topsy-turvy, big-play contest that featured five lead changes.
On the ninth play of an 80-yard drive, quarterback Isaiah Murphy found Justin Vance alone on a fourth-and-6 play for a 16-yard touchdown that gave Walnut Ridge a 30-28 lead in the final minute of the third quarter.
“We didn’t necessarily expect this high-scoring of a game, but our defensive staff did a great job making adjustments in the second half,” Mattox said.
For Marion-Franklin, Maleek McIntosh had 199 yards on 20 carries with three touchdowns but was limited to 52 yards in the second half.
Murphy threw three touchdown passes, including one to Magwood, for Walnut Ridge.
“We had a lot of fire under us in the second half,” Magwood said. “Nobody has scored this much on our defense, so it was a pride thing. It was mostly about adjusting to all of their playmakers and keeping them from hitting big ones. I knew that Brown was sort of a gunslinger, and I tried to read his eyes and react on those interceptions.”
Walnut Ridge, which will face Independence (8-1, 5-1) at home Oct. 27 in its quest for its first undefeated season and first playoff appearance since 2009, outgained Marion-Franklin 526-278 in total yards and made 24 first downs to only 12 for the Red Devils.
The teams traded touchdowns for the first five series and the Red Devils led 28-24 at halftime before some normalcy prevailed. Walnut Ridge missed all six of its extra-point tries, five on two-point conversions, and was chasing the points until the fourth quarter.
“You expect those kind of fireworks when two quality teams with a lot of a playmakers get together,” Marion-Franklin coach Brian Haffele said. “We made a few more mental mistakes than they did, and that ultimately decided the game.
“We hit our share of big plays, but we bogged down in the red zone a couple times and couldn’t get anything. On the other side, they pounded it down our throat and chewed up the clock in that final quarter and that did us in.”
==========Team 1 2 3 4 Final WALNUT RIDGE 18 6 6 6 36 MARION-FRANKLIN
14 14 0 0 28