ASHTON, W.Va. — A win for the ages.
The Hannan football team snapped an 18-game losing skid by scoring 20 unanswered points after halftime and ultimately gave head coach Kellie Thomas her first career victory on Friday night with an impressive 34-26 decision over visiting Manchester in a Week 5 non-conference contest at the Craigo Athletic Complex in Mason County.
The Wildcats (1-4) picked up their first win just two days short of two full years, with the previous victory coming against visiting Jenkins (KY) by a 41-8 count back on Sept. 29, 2017.
The hosts, however, made the historic night even more special with the manner in which they ended their slide.
After building a quick 8-0 lead, Blue and White surrendered three consecutive touchdowns that allowed the Greyhounds (0-5) to build a comfortable 18-8 advantage early in the second frame.
The Wildcats responded with a score that trimmed the deficit back down to four points, but the Gold and Blue countered with eight straight points before entering halftime with a 26-14 advantage.
Out of the break, the Wildcats simply made the final 24 minutes about making history … and the hosts did not disappoint.
Hannan held MHS to just 29 yards of total offense in the second half, plus needed only the third quarter to secure a permanent lead. Up 28-26, the Wildcats nailed the door shut on the outcome as Jordan Fitzwater converted his third second half touchdown midway through the finale — giving the hosts an 8-point lead.
HHS made a late defensive stand, then managed to pick up a first down before running the clock out with a kneel down — and the celebration erupted from there.
In getting their first victory of 2019, the Wildcats etched themselves into the record books by making Thomas — the first female football coach in West Virginia high school history — the first woman to also win a gridiron game on the sidelines.
Thomas, however, wasn’t focused on that aspect of the outcome. She was too wrapped up in how her players reached this monumental occasion.
“It was a great feeling for all of us, primarily because the kids never gave up. The kids believed that this was our game to win and their heads never dropped when we fell behind. The boys just kept going full throttle and everybody played together down the stretch, and we did the things we had to do to get this win,” Thomas said. “We did it with our offense and our defense and our special teams. It wasn’t one play or one kid that made the difference, but it was more about everybody contributing and doing their part. The biggest reasons we won this game is because we believed in one another and we did what we were supposed to. That’s the part the makes me most proud.”
After starting the preseason with its helmets coming up missing, Hannan was in a position where it could not go through contact drills for two weeks before new helmets arrived. That, in itself, put the program behind most others.
Having to wonder if the season would even happen before getting the new helmet order approved also didn’t help the cause early on, mainly because nobody knew if the football season was going to be cancelled or not.
With all of the uncertainty, Thomas noted that nobody gave up and everyone that started the year is still with the program — and the prize for collectively fighting through the tough times showed itself on Friday night.
“Given the amount of adversity that these guys have been through, there is no better reward for them than getting to enjoy this victory,” Thomas said. “There was a point where we didn’t even know if we’d get to have football this year after the helmets were stolen, but these guys just wanted to play football. The kids have remained classy through everything we’ve gone through this year and they’ve continued to show sportsmanship throughout the losses, so seeing them win this game was truly a special moment for both them and me … as well as all of our community.”
Hannan built an early 8-point cushion as Ryan Hall scored on an 8-yard touchdown run. Hall also completed a pass to Christopher Exline to complete the successful 2-point conversion early in the first quarter.
Manchester answered with a 35-yard TD run by Mason Dunn, but the guests failed on every conversion attempt Friday night — which allowed Hannan to take an 8-6 edge into the second frame.
The Greyhounds secured their first lead of the game on a 44-yard TD run by Dunn early in the second canto, then Trey Spears added a 2-yard TD run midway through the frame for an 18-8 lead.
HHS answered back with a 57-yard scoring pass from Hall to Gage Burris, which cut the deficit down to 18-14.
MHS, however, answered with an 8-yard Dunn TD run that increased the lead back out to 10 points, then forced a late safety after Hannan had to punt the ball out of the back of the end zone to avoid an even worse fate. The additional two points allowed the Greyhounds to take a 26-14 advantage into the intermission.
Fitzwater cut the deficit in half with a 7-yard TD run early in the third period, then the senior blocked a punt and recovered the ball in the end zone while tying the contest at 26-all.
Fitzwater gave the hosts a permanent lead with a successful 2-point conversion run, making it a 28-26 contest headed into the fourth.
Fitzwater broke free for a 25-yard run to paydirt midway into the finale, and the Wildcats were able to extend their lead out to eight points again.
Manchester made one last attempt to knot the game back up, but Hannan’s defense forced a loss of downs and took the ball over with roughly four minutes left in regulation.
The Wildcats managed to move the chains with just under two minutes remaining, allowing the excitement to start building as MHS was out of timeouts. HHS ran off the remainder of the time on the clock … and pandemonium ensued.
“There was about two minutes left when I started emptying everything out my pockets. I knew the kids were coming after me with the water cooler, so I wanted to make sure that anything I didn’t want wet was nowhere to be found on me,” Thomas said. “I managed to get out of the way of a little bit of the water, but the best part was having our home crowd stick around and congratulate the kids for so long after the game ended. Everybody at Hannan just wanted to take it in and enjoy the moment. Minus getting a little soaked, which I really didn’t mind, it was an all-around good evening for our community.”
Fitzwater — who ended up blocking two punts in the contest — led the Wildcats with 118 rushing yards on 17 carries, followed by Exline with 58 yards on 11 attempts. Logan Barker also had 35 yards on five totes.
Hall finished the evening 5-of-10 passing for 93 yards, throwing one TD pass and two interceptions. Burris accounted for the lone receiving touchdown with his only catch, while Fitzwater led the hosts with three catches for 22 yards.
Dylan Starkey also caught one pass for 14 yards and led the defense with 16 tackles. Fitzwater recovered four fumbles and Exline added a fumble recovery as well. Devrick Burris also secured a takeaway with an interception.
Dunn led the Greyhounds with 100 rushing yards on eight attempts, while Spears added 62 rushing yards on 21 carries while also going 0-for-4 in the passing game — which included an interception. Jacob Johnson also churned out 29 rushing yards on five totes.
Hannan snapped a 3-game losing skid against Manchester and is now 2-3 all-time in the head-to-head series. MHS also dropped its 11th consecutive regular season decision.
Though she is quite aware of the historical significance of the final outcome, Thomas was still reluctant about having the attention pointed at her for being the first female coach to win a high school game in West Virginia.
Humbly, the second-year mentor simply pushed the credit on to those who truly deserve it.
“The history wouldn’t have been made without the boys, so they are really the ones that deserve all the credit. It is neat to be the first female coach to win a football game in West Virginia history, but I couldn’t be any of that without those guys going out there and doing what we as coaches asked of them,” Thomas said. “It was their hard work and their effort that won this game, so I really cannot take too much credit for this one.
“People will make this out to be about me, but this really has very little to do with me. The credit should go to the kids, because they are the ones that made this happen. However, given what it is, I do like the fact that they are part of making history … and we have five more weeks to focus on making some more.”
Hannan has a bye during Week 6 and returns to action on Friday, Oct. 11, when it hosts Montcalm in a non-conference matchup at 7 p.m. That Week 7 contest will also serve as Homecoming weekend at HHS.
Bryan Walters can be reached at 740-446-2342, ext. 2101.