"We scheduled Boyle County and Danville to give a playoff-like atmosphere and get ready for the state playoffs, but we weren't hoping to lose both games," Highlands coach Dale Mueller said. "We had opportunities to win both games, but we didn't."
Highlands (4-2) certainly looked like it had this game won when Jordan Nevels, who rushed for 110 yards, scored on a 1-yard run with 9:24 left to cap a 15-play, 91-yard drive and give the Bluebirds a 25-13 advantage. However, that's when the Admirals responded to adversity better than they had all season.
Danville had already squandered scoring chances on its previous two possessions when it drove inside the Highlands' 10-yard line only to be stopped on downs. This time, though, Danville (4-1) marched 79 yards in nine plays to score on a 2-yard run by Charles Penix, who rushed for 125 yards, to make it 25-20 with 5:27 left.
Still, the Bluebirds used seven straight runs by Nevels to reach the Danville 44 before quarterback Chase Cecil was sacked by Penix to stop the drive. That forced a punt from Adam Rosenhagen.
Hawkins elevated to top punt returner
Hawkins was elevated to Danville's top punt returner for the first time this season because one player was dismissed from the team earlier in the week and another was injured.
"I don't like having my quarterback back there, but he returned punts last year when he was playing receiver," Harp said.
Hawkins took the punt at his own 22-yard line, put moves on two defenders, got a block from Mario Berry and got to the sideline. He managed to stay inbounds and got a block from Phillip Dunn on Rosenhagen that cleared the path to give the Ads the 26-25 advantage.
"I owe it all to my blockers," Hawkins said. "I never thought about not catching the ball. I knew he would kick it deep and give me a chance to return it."
"I can't remember the last time we gave up a punt return for a score," Mueller said. "He made some good moves and turned it on. It was a great return."
Still, Highlands had a chance to win with a field goal after Danville, which was out of timeouts, failed on its two-point conversion pass following two delay of game penalties.
"Our kids got so excited with the score that the kicking team went on the field," Harp said. "I went berserk. I was ready to fire the coach in charge of that team. Then I remembered it was me."
Highlands got to the Danville 42-yard line and needed two yards for a first down. Brad Bardo threw a short pass to Nevels, but Hawkins made a solid open-field tackle to stop him short of the first down.
"They had run that play before and I knew it was coming," said Hawkins, who also had an interception.
Danville took the early lead when a 49-yard run by Penix set up a 6-yard scoring run by Kelvin Turner, who rushed for 126 yards.
Highlands wasted a 42-yard completion to Mitch McMahon, who had five catches for 189 yards, on its first drive when the Ads got back-to-back sacks of Bardo from Turner and Alejandro Gray. However, a 57-yard completion to McMahon from Bardo set up a 25-yard field goal by Rosenhagen early in period two.
Fumble return puts Ads ahead by 10
Highlands looked in position to take the lead at the Danville 26-yard line before Nevels fumbled. Turner picked up the ball at the 25 and outran everyone for the 75-yard touchdown return and 13-3 lead.
The Bluebirds needed just two plays to get the score back when Bardo lofted a deep pass to a wide-open Nick Sheffield that easily went for an 81-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 13-10.
Danville had a chance to add to its halftime lead when it reached the Highlands 6-yard line before losing yardage on its next two plays. Highlands took the lead on its first second-half possession when Bardo hit McMahon, who avoided a tackle by Hawkins, for a 40-yard score.
"We left Ronnie one-on-one with some great receivers. He got beat, but he also made some huge plays," Harp said. "This game really should help our confidence. Actually, it should help our whole team. If these guys decide to play like they did tonight, they can go back to Louisville (for the state title game) because we showed a lot of heart to beat a really good team."
Larry Vaught can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.