By Angel Verdejo
Killeen Daily Herald
WACO - Two years ago, a group of Copperas Cove seniors were wide-eyed sophomores making their mark on varsity.
Johnny Sirmans was the district's offensive newcomer of the year, Orlando Thomas an all-district wide receiver and Brandon Hamilton a contributor at linebacker after moving from running back. Despite the impact, the youngsters couldn't help their teammates get past the playoffs' first round.
It was the same last year when Cove lost to Mesquite Horn in the first round.
And with seconds left in the third quarter Saturday and a 21-point deficit, it looked like another one-and-done season for the Bulldawgs.
But it didn't happen because of the seniors. One after another made big play after big play, and Copperas Cove rallied to beat Horn 48-47 at Floyd Casey Stadium in a 5A Division II bi-district playoff game.
"My senior class is really special," Cove coach Jack Welch said. "It's a tremendous gift for them. This is just an example of their hard work and dedication - no question."
Added senior linebacker Sean
Harris: "It's a feeling you can't explain. It's great to break that little trend that we had and it feels good."
Thomas led Cove (10-1) to four scoring drives in the game's final 13 minutes. The first was set up by a Hamilton 66-yard kickoff return and the second after defensive back Chris Rhodes recovered a Horn fumble at midfield.
Kicker Eli Kuhns then executed a successful onside kick that led to the game-tying touchdown, then had the ensuing pooch kick land free where Jalen Gilbert fell on it for the Dawgs with 4:10 left in the game.
Chans Colbert scored his third rushing touchdown four plays later to put Cove up 48-41 with 2:50 left.
The defense needed one final stop, but it didn't happen immediately - Horn drove 73 yards on 11 plays, with Treyvon Marsh going in from seven yards out with 52 seconds left. Down 48-47, the Jaguars called timeout to decide to go for the tie or the win.
Horn (4-7) went for the win, trotting its offense - a jumbo, short-yardage package - back on the field. The same formation worked for three touchdowns, including a Medgar Coleman 4-yard run putting Horn up 41-20 lead with 1:11 left in third quarter.
"Three yards from the end zone - that was a good calculated play from that coach," Welch said. "Had I had his personnel and seen what he had done throughout the day, I would have done the same thing."
Horn went to Coleman, but he was met just before the goal line by junior linebacker Darius McClinton, who stopped the senior's progress before he was tackled to preserves Cove's 48-47 lead.
"We knew we had to step up," Harris said. "We see them come - we had to come too. And we got in there and got the job done."
Hamilton recovered the ensuing Horn onside kick, clinching Cove's first playoff win since the Dawgs' run to the 2008 Div. II-5A semifinals. Cove moves to the area round and faces Garland Rowlett at 9 p.m. Friday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
Horn - despite a Cove touchdown to open the game - was in full control through three quarters. The Jaguars, answered Cove's initial touchdown then added on with the Dawgs moving against a stiff wind. They forced a punt and scored 57 seconds later.
Thomas then threw the first of two interceptions, and linebacker Richard Jones returned it 27 yards for the touchdown.
Cove got a gift when Harris tracked down Marsh following a 73-yard run, forced and recovered a fumble. The Dawgs punted, however, and Coleman went in two plays later for a 28-7 lead less than two minutes into the second quarter.
Hamilton cut it Horn's lead to 34-20 with a 44-yard score midway through the third quarter before Horn answered with a 10-play, 80-yard drive. Coleman's third score capped the drive and set up Cove's dramatic finish.
"Things didn't go our way at all times, but we played hard," Welch said. "Had we lost this ballgame, I was proud of our kids because we played hard. They never quit, they kept coming and when you do, great things are going to happen to you more times than not."