College football: Lenoir-Rhyne 16, Catawba 13
By Mike London
Catawba senior guard Kevin Hamaker went down to one knee on the sideline, stared up at a cruel scoreboard in disbelief and lifted a sweaty, muscular right arm to cover watery, red eyes.
As the final seconds ticked away, Hamaker embraced fellow four-year starter Hunter Carnes, and they headed together to the handshake line for the final time.
Catawba finally put a lost 2009 football season to bed, but not before one last bit of misery unfolded. The Indians fell 16-13 to SAC rival Lenoir-Rhyne at Shuford Stadium on Saturday.
“The nightmare continues,” coach Chip Hester said. “Plenty of opportunities, but we didn’t make enough plays, and that’s been a common theme all year.
“I hate it for our seniors, but we love ’em, and they’ll be successful in life way beyond the wins and losses on the football field. You can learn a lot from the hard lessons, and you take those experiences and move forward.”
Catawba (4-6, 1-6) moved forward with its passing game all day, although it struggled to get points. Patrick Dennis threw for 326 yards and tossed a TD to Brian Terwilliger during a fourth-quarter comeback bid. Eric Morman led a balanced receiving crew with six catches for 64 yards.
The running game was a different story. Counting four sacks of Dennis, Catawba’s stat sheet showed minus-3 yards rushing.
Lenoir-Rhyne (5-6, 2-5) escaped the SAC cellar and locked the Indians in it. Catawba fell to L-R for only the second time since 1994 and suffered its first losing season since ’94.
“You look at this whole season, and it was always one missed block here, one dropped pass there or one back not hitting the right hole,” Hamaker said. “We’re 10 times better than our record.”
All-American left offensive tackle Terrence Crosby, out since he injured an ankle on Oct. 24, returned to duty and provided inspiration.
“Crosby proved today that he’s an All-American,” O-line coach Ben Hepler said.
Crosby almost went the distance but had to be helped off the field by teammates Grayson Downs and Ethan Winn with 3:12 remaining. He spent the final seconds of his career hobbling on crutches.
“I wasn’t going to miss the last game, but this one summed up the story of our season,” Crosby said. “It never felt right. It’s felt all year like I was just dreaming all this. I keep waiting for someone to wake me up and tell me it’s time to play St. Aug’s (Catawba’s opening-day opponent). I wish we could start all over again.”
Catawba’s first two drives of the day set a miserable tone. A push to the L-R 23 ended when Thomas Trexler’s field goal was rejected by Keonte Davis.
On its second possession, trailing 3-0, Catawba drove from its 15 to the L-R 30. A second-and-2 reverse to Travis Landrum lost 9 yards, the drive stalled and the Bears owned the rest of the half.
L-R led 10-0 at the break, and it could’ve been much worse. At the half, the Bears had outrushed Catawba 180 yards to 13 with their option offense.
When untouched L-R fullback Byron Darby broke a 72-yard scoring run with 10:12 left in the third quarter, the Indians trailed 16-0.
Hope was rekindled by a big play from senior defensive linemen Melquan Fair and Terrence Porter with 5:54 left in the third quarter. Fair sacked L-R quarterback Justin Sanders, flinging him to the ground like a rag doll. When the ball popped out, Porter scooped it and hauled his prize 36 yards for the Indians’ first score of the day.
Calculating that a two-point conversion coupled with another TD and two-point conversion would tie it, Catawba tried for two, but a pass failed.
The defense battled, produced four turnovers to kept the Indians within striking distance.
“Nothing went the way we planned it this year,” junior defensive lineman Brandon Sutton said. “But the guys still practiced with energy every day and fought every game, even after we knew we weren’t going to the playoffs.”
Catawba started its final scoring drive with 4:31 remaining. Dennis completed four passes to push his team to the L-R 25. From there, he hit Terwilliger on a short route in the flat.
Terwilliger danced around a defender to get daylight, then raced down the home sideline for 25 yards to make it 16-12 with 3:03 remaining. Trexler’s PAT sliced the deficit to 16-13, but that would be Catawba’s final point of the season.
Devan Pointer fielded Trexler’s ensuing onside kick on a bounce and returned the ball to the Catawba 27.
“We played our hardest, but one more didn’t go our way,” Fair said. “It’s a disappointing season, but the boys will turn it around next year.”
For now, however, all the Indians can do is wonder where it all went wrong.
“Catawba has been my home for five years,” Hamaker said. “It’s tough to see it end on the field, but the relationships and friendships are forever. Guys I was competing against five years ago are now my brothers. They’re family and always will be.”