CENTERVILLE — A.J. Muegge and the rest of the Eastern Hancock seniors had enough. Winless since last month and trailing Class 2A Centerville 21-12 midway through the third quarter of their Sectional 37 opener Friday, it was now or never for the Royals.
“It kind of hits you. You’re down, and you say to yourself, ‘This is it if we don’t turn it up.’ That’s the greatest motivator there is,” Muegge said. “Swings of momentum were what kept us going.”
Muegge delivered the gut punch in the clutch, halting the host Bulldogs’ (7-3) opening drive in the second half with his first of two interceptions on defense and rushing for four touchdowns in the second half to lead the Royals to a 35-21 victory.
Eastern Hancock will advance into next week’s sectional semifinals to face Indianapolis Scecina.
“We kept getting big plays after big plays and they compounded,” Muegge said. “We finally put it together and capitalized on them.”
In the first half, Centerville scored first and built a 14-6 lead behind 202 yards rushing on 28 attempts, averaging 7.21 yards per carry.
Senior Reese VanDevender barreled for 138 yards in the first two quarters and rumbled for a 75-yard touchdown trot to put the Bulldogs ahead 14-0 early in the second quarter.
The Royals (6-4) turned the ball over on downs on their first possession and an interception by quarterback Jarett Lewis — both near the Bulldogs’ red zone crippled their scoring chances.
Lewis foreshadowed what was to come as he redeemed himself with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Luke Splater in the second half to slice the deficit 14-6. Lewis finished the game with 218 yards on 17 of 27 completions.
A missed extra-point attempt and a lost fumble on the Royals final offensive series of the first half, put them at a crossroads for the final 24 minutes.
“We started doing our jobs,” Muegge remarked on the Royals’ second-half approach. “We know we have the talent to score on anyone. We just have to execute and extend plays. That’s what we’re best at, and we got it done.”
Muegge set the comeback in motion with his first interception against Centerville’s Dylan Benedict on third-and-17 from the Bulldogs 18.
Following a 17-yard pass from Lewis to Splater, Muegge capped the short-field drive with a 3-yard plunge into the end zone. A failed two-point pass play, kept the Royals looking up 14-12.
VanDevender’s second rushing touchdown from 1-yard out increased the Bulldogs lead to 21-12 with 4:51 left in the third before the Royals took control.
“My hats off to our seniors. They showed great leadership. We asked for a great effort, and we got it,” Eastern Hancock head coach Jim O’Hara said. “They were focused. They were the most focused I’ve ever seen them. In my four years coaching here, this is the most focused the team has ever come out.”
A 14-play drive that stretched into the fourth quarter pulled the Royals withing one-point at 21-20. Muegge, who rushed the ball seven times and hauled in three receptions, finalized the series with an 11-yard touchdown.
He added a two-point reception from Lewis to apply the pressure on Centerville’s offense.
On the ensuing drive, the Bulldogs fumbled the ball away on second-and-5 from their own 37, which Muegge scooped up. Unable to convert on the turnover on the next drive, the Royals defense held strong, blanking the Bulldogs in the fourth quarter.
Centerville accumulated only 52 yards of offense in the second half, while the Royals produced 226.
A five-minute drive by the Royals, beginning with 6:35 left on the clock, gave Eastern Hancock it’s first lead of the night. Muegge finished the Royals’ march with a 2-yard touchdown run.
Despite being penalized for holding on their initial two-point attempt, the Royals grabbed a 28-21 lead as Lewis connected with Payton Wilkinson for a 15-yard conversion.
Muegge did the rest. On the Bulldogs’ next series, Muegge picked off Benedict again, returning the ball 55 yards to the Centerville 16.
Four plays later, he punched it in from 3-yards out to seal the comeback. He finished with 105 yards rushing on 21 carries and 86 yards receiving.
“A.J. looked like an all-state player, without a doubt, on both sides of the ball,” O’Hara said. “He made tremendous amount of plays.
“We had guys that made plays,” O’Hara added. “I’m proud of our adjustments after the first quarter. They’re a tough team. If you don’t stop that power pitch, you’re in trouble, and we had trouble with it, but then we made some adjustments and the kids picked it up.”