Raiders end historic season against McKenzie

Fellow Region 5A coaches and other officials named Raider Head Coach Kris White as the 2023 season Head Coach of the Year and his staff as the 2023 Coaching Staff of the Year. Pictured are (from left to right) Denny Wise, Wes Black, TJ Christian, Coach White, Manny Buchanan, Randy Morey, and Ethan Holt. | PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Reed

By Tabitha Evans Moore | EDITOR & PUBLISHER

Whether it’s being played on a high school, college, or NFL field, football is a game of second and inches and last night a historic Moore County Raider football squad came up just a seconds and a few inches short in a TSSAA third round playoff game against a familiar foe, the McKenzie Rebels. The Raiders ended their 2023 season with a narrow, one-point, heartbreaking loss.

Going into the game, insiders knew it would be an uphill battle. The defending 2022 state champs Rebels wanted another shot at the crown and the Raiders’ Mr. Football semi finalist Dawson White was battling a nagging knee injury that would affect his mobility.

Moore County found itself trailing 28-14 early in the second quarter but made a come back in the second half. Time ran out with McKenzie driving to hand Moore County their first loss of the season. The final score was Moore County 27, McKenzie 28.

Raiders pull within a TD at the half

The Raiders fumbled on their first series and the Rebels quickly made them pay for it to get up 7-0 with less than 50 seconds off the game clock. With 11:10 to play in the first quarter, the scoreboard read Raiders 0, Rebels 7.

But the Raiders punched right back. Logan Hegwood returned to the 35, then White used runs and a pass to Will Parker to earn second and two.

One of keys to victory would be utilizing players the Rebel staff hadn’t seen on film. Sophomore Cole Taylor didn’t possess the stats of some of the seniors, but he’d been money every time his name got called during the regular season. And on Friday night, Raider coaches called on him. On second and two, White threw a fade pass to Taylor down the right sideline for six. Freshman kicker Jax Ross’s PAT tied the score at 7-7 with 7:56 to play.

Those inches came into play on the next defensive series. The Raider defense allowed the Rebels to piece together a 19-play series that ended the first quarter. Eli Brown, Aydan Blair, and White all got stops for a loss but McKenzie connected on a long pass to make it first and goal with seconds to play, then Coleman Phillips met the Rebel runner in the backfield to make it second and goal. On the first play of the second quarter, the Rebel QB muscled just a couple of inches past the Raider defensive lineman for six points to earn back the lead.

With 11:55 to play in the second, the scoreboard read Raiders 7, Rebels 14.

But again, the Raiders answered. Hegwood returned the kick off to set up the Raiders first and 10 at the 24. After an incomplete pass, White handed off to Hegwood for a first down, then tucked the ball and ran for one more. Alex Copeland then made his first gravity defying catch of the night to earn another first down. White earned a quick two yards to make it second and eight but a Rebels encroachment call gave Moore County second and three. White then threw a perfect fade pass to the left pylon and Copeland scored six. Ross’s PAT tied the game at 14-14.

The Raider D forced the punt on the next series thanks in no small part to a touchdown-saving tackle by Brown and a well-defended pass by Isaac Petty. Moore County then found themselves in a third and Jiffy Mart hole thanks to a costly holding and offsides call. They punted on fourth and 31.

On the next series, the Rebels made a first down, then decided to take a shot downfield. Excellent coverage again by Petty handed them second and 10. On the next play, the Rebel receiver streaked around the left side prior to the snap straight at a surprised Petty to earn McKenzie a false start. The Rebel QB went after Petty again on the next play for no gain, and the Rebels punted on fourth and 20.

The two teams traded possessions, then the Rebel QB found a receiver near the goal line for six points. With 47 seconds to play in the second quarter, McKenzie led 21-14.

The Raiders tried to tie it up before the half but on first down with six seconds to go, White’s pass landed just inches outside the reach of the sprinting Hegwood and Moore County went into the halftime locker room trailing by a touchdown.

Alex Copeland, Keller Morey, Wes Clifton, Peyton Martin, Coleman Phillips, Isaac Petty, and Tripp Hammond made the All Region 5A Team. | PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Reed

PAT goes wide right

The Rebels got the ball first in the second half and repeated the trick of their first first half possession. On first and 10 at the 35 yard line, #8 Brewer squirted through a hole and straight into the end zone. The PAT made the score Raiders 14, Rebels 28.

On the kickoff return and with Raider Nation chanting, “We believe. We Believe,” Hegwood returned the ball to the 25 to set up first down. Hegwood then ran for another first down on the next play. A quick screen pass to Parker earned five more. The Rebels stymied the Raiders on the next two downs, and Moore County punted.

The Moore County defense played their best series of the game on the next Rebel possession. Coleman Phillips and Landon Smith both got stops for a loss to hand the Rebels third and 14. That’s when Moore County’s 12th man came alive. With cowbells and airhorns going off on all four corners of the field and beyond, the Rebels got a holding call to make it third and 24. The Rebel receiver dropped the pass on the next down, but McKenzie went for it on fourth and 24. The Rebel QB completed the pass but Hegwood stopped the receiver just inches from the line to gain and Moore County took over the ball on downs.

Hegwood ran for a first down. Then, White called his own number for five more yards and handed off to Hegwood for another first down. The Rebel line stopped the Raiders on the next two plays, then on third and 11, White threw to Brantley Hill for six yards to hand the Raiders fourth and 5. A false start flag tacked on five more yards. On fourth and 10, Copeland made his second miraculous catch of the night for the first down.

Hegwood got held up on the first down play, then White spotted Copeland running down the left sideline. He threw to the pylon and Copeland made the catch for six points. Ross’s successful PAT pulled Moore County back within a touchdown with 3:30 to play in the third.

McKenzie managed just a single first down on the next series thanks to heads up plays by James Laster, Smith, and Copeland. They punted on fourth and nine. The third quarter ended with Moore County driving.

The Rebels tackled White in the backfield for a three yard loss on the first play of the fourth quarter. He then tucked the ball and ran out of bounds for a quick five yard. On third and seven, White found Copeland again for the first down, then called on Taylor for a reception for a huge gain to set up first and 10 near the red zone. A would-not-be-denied Hegwood then battled in on the next down to pull Moore County within one-point. The PAT sailed just inches outside the goal post. With over seven minutes to play in the fourth, Moore County trailed 28-27.

On the Rebel kick off return, Brown stopped the McKenzie return man at the 32 yard line. The Rebel pass fell incomplete on the first down, then Blair stopped the Rebels for a short gain. On second and seven, Logan Cashion tripped up the Rebel runner for a short gain. The Moore County line then stopped McKenzie on the next play to make it fourth and inches. As the Rebel QB tried to push forward for the first down, the home crowd chanted, “short, short.” After an official time out for a measure, the Rebels turned over the ball on downs, handing Moore County back they ball.

On the next series, positive yards by Hegwood and Parker got the Raiders to third and three, then White picked up two more to make it fourth and one. A costly holding call, then pushed Moore County back five more. On fourth and six, the Rebels tackled White in the backfield, and took over downs.

McKenzie managed to piece together two first downs to run out the clock. The final score was McKenzie 28, Raiders 27.

Despite the hard fought battle, McKenzie players could see the heartbreak in the Moore County player’s eyes and many were quick to rush over a console the player they’d lined up against only seconds before the end. It felt like an empathetic gesture of sportsmanship.

Alex Copeland led against McKenzie with two scores. Copeland saved his best football for the postseason – leading all three games. He scored twice against Eagleville and three times against Houston County. Senior Logan Hegwood and sophomore Cole Taylor added a touchdown each. Freshman kicker Jax Ross was three of four in PAT attempts.

Logan Hegwood was the top rusher against Eagleville with 102 yards followed by Dawson White with 66. Through the air, Copeland led with 102 yards followed by Cole Taylor with 63, Will Parker with 14, and Brantley Hill with six yards.

On defense, Landon Smith led with seven tackles followed by Aydan Blair with six. {To view the rest of the game stats, click here.}

Will Parker, Landon Smith, James Laster, and Brantley Hill were Region 5A All Region honorable mention. | PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Reed

A heartbreaking ending to a historic season

Raider players got emotional during the post game huddle, but their head coach encouraged them to keep their heads up.

“I am incredibly proud of you guys,” Head Coach Kris White said. “It stings. I know that, but you guys left it all out there and that’s all we could ask for. I love every one of y’all. You played your guts out and you did everything we asked. Y’all have done a lot of incredible things in the last four year. I’m proud of each and every one of you.”

This year’s senior class will go down in Raider history as one of the best. Since their freshman year they boast a 38-12 overall record through four seasons. They made it to the third round off the TSSAA Class 1A playoffs in 2020 and 2023 as well as the second round in 2022.

In addition to winning the Region 5A crown this season and adding a number to the wall at Doug Price Field, senior quarterback Dawson White is currently a Class 1A Mr. Football semi-finalist. Following the game, the McKenzie Head Coach Wade Comer made a beeline over to Coach White. “If your son’s not the Class 1A Mr. Football then no one should be,” he told Coach White.

Immediately following the game, the Region 5A honors started rolling in for the 2023 Moore County Raider Squad. Coaches named Dawson White Region 5A’s Most Valuable Player as well as Logan Hegwood as Most Valuable Back, Eli Brown as Defensive Player of the Year, and Aydan Blair as Most Valuable Offensive Lineman.

Alex Copeland, Keller Morey, Wes Clifton, Peyton Martin, Coleman Phillips, Isaac Petty, and Tripp Hammond made the All Region 5A Team and Will Parker, Landon Smith, James Laster, and Brantley Hill were Region 5A All Region honorable mention.

Head Coach Kris White was named Region 5A Coach of the Year and his staff, Denny Wise, Wes Black, TJ Christian, Manny Buchanan, Randy Morey, and Ethan Holt were named Region 5A Coaching Staff of the Year. •

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