PENDLETON — There were enough factors at play, working against the Greenfield-Central Cougars on Friday night, they could have easily thrown in the towel.
After pulling ahead 7-0 early, nothing seemed to go right until the second half, but the Cougars refused to give in despite the odds.
Instead, they learned who they were, battling Hoosier Heritage Conference rival Pendleton Heights until the final horn before losing 34-28 at John Broughton Stadium.
“We say we don’t lose. We either win or we learn, and what we learned about us tonight is we’re a bunch of fighters,” Greenfield-Central head coach Adam Sherman said. “Regardless of the fact that we didn’t win this game, it’s a sign that the culture is changing because we had a chance to win all the way to the last play of the game.”
After an opening drive, capped by Greenfield-Central quarterback Andrew Leslie’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Orlando Mojica with 8:29 in the first quarter, the Cougars looked primed to win.
The Arabians (4-0, 2-0 HHC), who entered unbeaten on the season, struggled to find their offense, punting on their first two possessions. On their first three-and-out, Greenfield-Central’s Jaden Brown partially blocked their punt attempt, setting up the Cougars short field on the Pendleton 37 and eventual touchdown.
On the Cougars’ next two possession, things went south fast, as a lost fumble on a snap was scooped up by Arabians’ Joe Rios and returned 20 yards for a touchdown. On the next Cougars’ series, Leslie exited with a leg injury, being carted off by trainers.
Greenfield-Central (2-2, 1-1 HHC) went scoreless the rest of the half while getting hit with 11 penalties. The Arabians built a 20-7 lead in the process as quarterback Christian Conkling and wideout Eli Pancol went to work.
The duo connected for two touchdowns on consecutive drives, measuring 15 and 8 yards. The would partner for four touchdown receptions on the night, including two in the second half.
Pancol hauled in 11 receptions for 202 yards. His longest touchdown was 88 yards to put Pendleton Heights up 27-14. Conkling passed for 233 yards, completing 15 of 20 attempts.
The Cougars turned the ball over four times in the first half, with two lost fumbles and two interceptions.
“We had a lot of adversity tonight and we fought through it. I thought we played really well in the second half, not very well in the first half, but unbelievably well in the second half,” Sherman said. “If we can just get clicking on all cylinders, we are going to be really tough to beat.”
Their luck changed in the second half. Leslie, who returned in warrior fashion, passed for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the game.
He opened the second half with another touchdown pass to Mojica for 21 yards to slice the Arabians’ lead to 20-14.
A questionable down call by the officials on fourth-and-goal on the Arabians 1 during the Cougars’ next drive, setup by a huge Mojica kick return to Pendleton’s 30, kept them behind.
The Cougars defense, however, returned the favor, stopping the Arabians on fourth-and-1 on the Greenfield 37 on the next series. Earlier in the drive, Conkling received a favorable ruling on a potential fumble in the end zone on second-and-9 from the Arabians 2.
Conkling dropped the ball, but it was ruled an incomplete pass despite the Cougars piling on the the fumble in the end zone.
A Braden Brown 17-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter put them within striking distance 27-21. Brown finished with 135 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
Pancol’s fourth touchdown reception pushed the Arabians lead to 34-21 as the 12th penalty against Greenfield-Central positioned Pendleton in the red zone.
“At times I don’t think we are always in the greatest situations, and that’s on me,” Sherman said. “We had some mistakes. We were down on the 1, and why we don’t run Braden Brown four times in a row? That’s coach Sherman’s fault.”
The Cougars made up the ground again with a late scoring drive, highlighted by a 58-yard pass from Leslie to Mike Hoskins, who broke two tackles en route to the end zone. The touchdown with 3:05 remaining gave the Cougars hope, but despite a stand by the defense, they couldn’t reclaim the lead.
“We thought Leslie got in on the quarterback sneak on the fourth down, maybe or maybe not. There were some things down there, you don’t know? The mistakes we made on offense, were on me,” Sherman said. “That’s all on me. To be honest, if I do a better job, we probably win this game.”