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Kelly Fisher has been coaching long enough to see some pretty good running backs rise through the ranks at John Hardin.
He thinks he has the next great tailback in a long line of them at Bluegrass Middle School.
Eighth-grader Anthony Witherspoon had 198 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 34-28 win over T.K. Stone in the Middle School Athletic Conference eighth-grade championship game Tuesday at the Elizabethtown Athletic Complex.
Witherspoon rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown on four carries, caught one pass for 23 yards and returned the second-half kickoff 85 yards for a score.
“He’s a fantastic, superstar-type of athlete,” Fisher said. “I’ve seen a lot of good running backs in my time at John Hardin, and he’s going to be one of the best coming up. I can rely on him when I need those extra yards. I was a little frustrated with him in the fourth quarter when he didn’t do what I wanted him to do, but when I needed him he stepped up. I had a talk with him on the sideline and he came in and got the job done.”
Witherspoon’s last carry sealed the win for the Colts (6-4). He picked up 30 yards on third-and-9 from the Bluegrass 44-yard line, allowing the Colts to run out the clock and beat the Panthers (7-3) for the second time this season.
Witherspoon made an instant impact, scoring on a 78-yard run on his first carry to give Bluegrass a 6-0 lead with 3:30 left in the first quarter.
“It was just good blocking,” Witherspoon said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. I just had to punch it in.”
For T.K. Stone coach Crad Jaggers, it was old hat.
Jaggers said Witherspoon scored on his first carry when the teams met in the regular season.
“He’s tremendous. It’s just something that you can’t prepare for in practice,” Jaggers said. “He’s one of those special athletes that come around every once in a while. He’s a darn good one.”
The Panthers bounced back on their next possession, putting together an 11-play, 58-yard scoring drive to tie it at 6. Halfback Derek Smith capped the drive with a 32-yard catch from quarterback Tyler Durbin with 6:32 remaining in the second quarter.
One play later, the Colts were off and running again. Zion Smalling took a handoff up the middle and juked his way to a 72-yard touchdown and a 12-6 lead.
Witherspoon’s kick return made it 18-6 and Tylus John had a 33-yard scoring run to extend the lead to 26-6 with 3:24 left in the third.
T.K. Stone looked to get back in it when Terry King ripped the ball out of the hands of Bluegrass wideout Nathan Brown and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown. The score was not allowed, however, because of an inadvertent whistle.
“That was pretty big,” Jaggers said. “I don’t ever want to talk about the officials, but things happen. It’s just tough that you get one taken off the board for an inadvertent whistle. But our kids have nothing to be ashamed of. They have a lot to be proud of, and I hope we’re not done.”
Luckily for the Panthers, the play didn’t cost them. They pulled within 26-14 when Smith scored on a 4-yard run and ran in the conversion with 4:40 left to play.
Two plays later, Stuart forced another fumble and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown to make it 26-22 with 3:46 to go.
The Colts appeared to cinch the win on Smalling’s 30-yard scoring burst with 1:41 left, but the Panthers answered again as Donavon Huskey capped a two-play drive with a 1-yard scoring run.
“Give credit to T.K. Stone; Coach Jaggers does a great job with them,” Fisher said. “They worked hard and they put the pressure on us. It was very nerve wracking because our defense is better than that. But they were able to find spots and do what they do best and run the ball right over top of us.”
The Colts outgained the Panthers, 330-259. Smalling finished with 145 yards on eight carries, while John added 47 yards on five carries.
Smith was a workhorse for T.K. Stone, rushing for 134 yards on a game-high 29 carries. Durbin completed 4-of-8 passes for 95 yards, and King caught three passes for 63 yards.
“I’m proud of my kids,” Jaggers said. “They’ve been able to do some things at T.K. Stone that hadn’t been done in a long, long, long time. They could have very easily laid down and that game could have gotten real ugly, but they battled. A break here or a break there, who knows what happens. They ended up making one more play than we did.”
Both teams and North Middle advance to the middle school state tournament, which begins Tuesday. The draw is Saturday.
Fisher said the Colts and Panthers could meet again at State.
“I really don’t want to play them again right now because they’re starting to figure us out a little more,” he said. “They’ve played us tough, and I’d like to have a couple of weeks before we play them again. But I’ll be excited to see who we get to play.”
NORTH MIDDLE 34, EAST HARDIN 14. The Spartans led 20-6 at the half and 26-6 heading to the fourth to beat the East Hardin Rebels in the third-place game. North increased its lead to 34-6 in the fourth quarter, starting the running clock.
Josh Claywell can be reached at 270-505-1752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.