CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eastern Hancock’s second-half comeback in its Mid-Eastern Conference opener relied heavily on the running game, but when you have a four-year starting quarterback — who holds numerous school passing records — and he sees an opening, you’re going to sit back and watch the coach on the field go to work.
Royals senior signal-caller Houston Swan, the program’s all-time leader in passing yards (5,667 yards coming into this season), saw sophomore wide receiver Brayden Sullivan uncovered by a North Decatur defensive back. He changed the team’s play at the line of scrimmage, threw the ball to Sullivan in stride and the rest was history.
Sullivan went 78 yards for a touchdown with 3:14 left in the game, then Swan hit tight end Chase Riggs for the two-point conversion finishing the team’s comeback in a 27-20 victory over North Decatur on Friday night at Eastern Hancock High School.
“Give him a huge amount of credit for that,” Eastern Hancock head coach Phil Morris said of his veteran quarterback. “And, Sullivan finished the play. It’s huge having a veteran (quarterback there). That’s a coach on the field saying, ‘Look, look what we got.’ That’s huge leadership (from Houston).”
“I saw they didn’t have a corner on him, so I just had him run a fade,” Swan added. “I took it and threw it real quick before the line got down the field and he was off.”
It was the only pass thrown in the second half. They didn’t need to throw much. The running game was dominant.
The Royals, down 13-0 at the break, which lasted over an hour due to lightning, let running backs Zach Arnold and Cole Rainbolt carry the load for most of the half.
Arnold got the Royals their first score, a 55-yard sprint past the Charger defense to cut the visitor’s lead to 13-6. North Decatur quickly answered with a 52-yard touchdown pass from Carson Parmer to Kaden Muckerheide to extend its advantage to 20-6 with 7:37 left in the third quarter.
Rainbolt and Arnold had two more long touchdown runs in them prior to the game-winning throw from Swan to Sullivan.
Rainbolt scored from 35 yards out with 3:21 left in the third period to cut it to 20-13. Arnold, on the Royals next possession, went 66 yards to pay dirt with 11:44 left in the contest. EH missed the PAT to make it 20-19.
“We were down at halftime last week (at Alexandria). I told them don’t panic, we’re going to do what we do and run the football,” Morris said. “We’re explosive and we can score from anywhere on the field run or pass.
“Zach stepped up and had an unbelievable game. He picked us up. It’s believing in each other and believing in our system and playing a 48-minute game. I’m so, so proud (of the team).”
Arnold had all of his carries in the second half. he ran it six times for, unofficially, 121 yards. Rainbolt finished with 103 yards on 13 carries.
“We were in the locker room (at halftime) and we were pretty down,” Arnold said. “We had to get ourselves back up. We just started pounding the ball down their throat. Some gaps were closing so I had to bounce it (on the a couple runs). I was thankful for my blockers and our line was doing their job, so I had to do mine.”
Swan ran well, too, rushing eight times for 52 yards. He completed 7-of-12 passes for 103 yards. He had two balls intercepted in the end zone in the first half.
Eastern Hancock’s defense did its work after the lone second-half Charger score.
North Decatur turned the ball over on downs at the EH 22 right before Swan’s connection with Sullivan.
After the Royals took the lead, North Decatur got to the Royals 24 before, again, turn the ball over on downs.
“Give North Decatur credit. That’s a good team. That’s a team that’s been together for a long time and they give you headaches,” Morris added. “We just played vanilla (on defense) and it boiled down to our guys wanting it a little bit more.
“We don’t have a magic formula or wave a magic wand, we’re going to do what we do, play football and the guys stepped up.”
It was the season opener for North Decatur. The Chargers were scheduled to play their annual Bucket Game with South Decatur last weekend, but it was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.
Last year, the Class 1A program went 10-3. The Chargers had eight shutout wins, including seven in a row prior to losing 36-20 to West Washington in the regional. They won Sectional 47, outscoring tournament opponents 86-0.
It was the first meeting between the Royals and Chargers since 2017, an Eastern Hancock 38-21 victory in Greensburg.
Eastern Hancock (2-0, 1-0) plays its second conference game at Wes-Del next week.
Eastern Hancock 27, North Decatur 20
NORTH DECATUR (0-1, 0-1);6;7;7;0;—;20
EASTERN HANCOCK (2-0, 1-0);0;0;13;14;—;27
ND—Reid Messer 7 pass from Carson Parmer (kick failed), 8:48
ND—Reid Messer 10 run (Messer kick), 2:15
EH—Zach Arnold 55 run (kick failed), 10:24
ND—Kaden Muckerheide 52 pass from Carson Parmer (Messer kick), 7:37
EH—Cole Rainbolt 35 run (Aaron Redmon kick), 3:21
EH—Arnold 66 run (kick failed), 11:44
EH—Brayden Sullivan 78 pass from Houston Swan (Chase Riggs pass from Swan), 3:14