South's Curt Phillips tries to put the football over the goal line. John Arrowood photo.
KINGSPORT — For a little while, it looked like Morristown East had brought the perfect storm to Colonial Heights.
Then the wind took a Southward turn.
Sullivan South running back Taylor Fletcher rushed for 158 yards and four touchdowns as the Rebels rallied to take a 41-21 comeback victory over the visiting Hurricanes in the first round of the TSSAA Class 4A playoffs.
“That was rough,” said South coach Stacy Carter, whose squad trailed 21-0 after the first quarter.
“It shows a lot about the character of our kids and how they play under adversity.”
Taking the intermittent rain as a good omen, the Hurricanes (5-6) wasted no time pouring it on the highly favored Rebels (10-1).
After the opening kickoff, East got the chains moving with a seven-play, 59-yard scoring drive helped along by Nick Taylor’s 22-yard scramble. Fullback Johnny Hodge punched it across from the 3-yard line for the 6-0 lead with 8:53 on the clock.
Curt Phillips returned the subsequent kickoff to the East 41-yard line and started pushing into Hurricanes territory. But the drive ended when the stellar South signal-caller gave up his sixth interception of the year, to ’Cane defensive back Jeremy Jones.
“It was a busted play,” said Phillips, who went on to rush for 92 yards, including a 2-yard scoring keeper in the third quarter.
“I was scrambling to the left and I was supposed to throw to the right. I saw the safety but I didn’t see the corner. I shouldn’t have thrown that. It was just stupid on me.”
Six Morristown East snaps later, Hurricanes quarterback Tee Howell broke free for a 51-yard scoring run, followed by Dee Johnson’s 2-point conversion crash.
Jones came up big for East again after South’s next drive stalled on downs, returning a punt 81 yards for the 21-0 lead on Lucas Collins’ kick.
“You don’t really have a game plan to battle back from being down (three possessions). That was very tough to do,” Carter said.
Tough, but not insurmountable.
The South offense started clicking late in the first quarter on a sustained 11-play scoring drive capped by Fletcher’s 1-yard touchdown run at 9:09 left in the half.
The Rebel defense started tightening some screws of its own. Then on South’s next possession, Fletcher reeled off a 30-yard scramble followed by a 25-yard scoring run with 4:12 on the clock, closing it to 21-14 on Jordan Willingham’s PAT kick.
“When they put nine in the box it’s hard to get it done. But we still found a way to do it,” Fletcher said. “I can sit here and talk about offense all day. But our defense took the licks. Our defense did it.”
True enough, the Rebels deconstructed the next Hurricane possession, getting sacks from Phillips and Chris Collins.
A well-covered Lucas Collins punt that pinned South to its own 2-yard line with 1:13 remaining prevented the Rebels from tying it up before intermission.
Any questions about momentum were settled when South opened the second half with an eight-play, 65-yard scoring drive that included a 20-yard gain by Phillips after a great fake to Fletcher, who ultimately capped that series with a 1-yard TD plunge.
“We jumped on them last year like that. Got them down 21-0. It was 28-14 at halftime and we won it 35-21,” said Hurricanes coach Dwayne Hatcher. “We got a lead on them this time and didn’t hold it. Once they started scoring, we couldn’t stop them.”
Defensive tackle George Harless recovered a Howell fumble at the East 21 to set up the Rebels for another quick score. A 15-yard Fletcher run took it to the verge; two plays later Phillips made a flying leap for six.
“(Fletcher) ran the football tonight the best he’s ever ran it. He did a fantastic job,” marveled Carter, who continued to get big defensive plays in the second half from Michael Acero and Derrick Fisher.
Caleb Kitzmiller had a big one when he scooped up a Johnson fumble, setting up Fletcher’s 10-yard scoring run with 11:02 left to play. He later one-upped himself by snagging a Howell pass attempt and returning it 58 yards to score.
“We fought hard coming back, but we’ve got to quit doing that,” said Phillips, who’ll lead the Rebels against Morristown West next Friday. “Hopefully we can be as lucky next time. But we don’t want to put ourselves in that situation.”