MAYO — Three early turnovers were too much for Lafayette High to overcome Friday night.
Union County converted those miscues into touchdowns for a 22-0 lead and held off the Hornets 32-19 at Dale Walker Field in a Class 1A playoff game.
The Hornets finish the season 9-2 and the Tigers improve to 7-5 with a Region 3 championship game at Madison County next week for the right to advance to a state semifinal.
Utilizing short runs and 14-yard completion from quarterback Jaxson Beach to Nic’Kel Freeman, the Hornets quickly took the opening kickoff and drove into Union territory. Stalling at the Union 28-yard line, Beach completed a fourth-and-7 pass to the 19 for a first down.
Lafayette, though, wasn’t as fortunate on its next fourth-down try when a fumble on the snap was scooped up by the Tigers’ Cortez Slocum, who returned it for an apparent touchdown.
A block in the back penally negated the score, but Union got the ball at Lafayette’s 30 and a boost of momentum.
“It was self induced in the first half with drops and turnovers,” Lafayette coach Mark Beach said.
The penalty only delayed the touchdown because Union County quarterback Lance Thornton found Mitchell Rizer for a 10-yard TD reception. A two-point conversion made it 8-0 with 3:44 left in the first quarter.
The score was set up by Union running back Hosea Robinson, who ran for 17 yards on a second-and-8 to the Hornet 11-yard line. Two players later the Tigers scored.
The momentum continued to build from there when the Tigers recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff.
A couple plays later there was a wild scramble for a fumble after Robinson lost control of the ball, which flew about 10 yards in front of him, and then squirted free from a pile of players and then evaded another Hornet defender before the Tigers recovered at the 14.
That led to a short scoring run from Thornton and a 14-0 lead in the final minute of the first quarter.
A fumble on the first snap of the second quarter gave Union the ball once again and on the next play, Thornton hit Slocum in stride for a 37-yard touchdown and the 22-0 lead.
Jason Beach said the Hornets’ offense was bottled up somewhat, but the turnovers were critical.
“I injured my hip in the first drive,” he said. “But we put ourselves in a hole to begin with and ultimately that put us out of the game.”
Still trailing by the three scores, the Hornets clawed back into shortly before halftime when Beach found Freeman in the corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown with a minute to go before halftime to make it 22-7.
Union County coach Kepa Sarduy said the Tigers’ game plan focused on Beach.
“Obviously game plan: stop No. 15 (Beach), he’s 90% of their offense, and they like to throw the ball to No. 2 (Freeman), so we double-covered him,” Sarduy said. “Everyone else was going to have to beat us 1-on-1 if they wanted to beat us. But our kids did their job and the scoreboard took care of that.”
After the break, Robinson had a 25-yard run for the Tigers to the Hornet 30-yard line, then Thornton tossed a floater that receiver Allan Mcclellon caught between two defenders for 21 yards. Robinson ran it in on the next play and Union led 30-7 with 9:30 left in the third.
On the ensuing short kickoff, Lafayette’s Mario Thomas returned the kickoff to the Tigers’ 19-yard line and Beach ran it in from 16 yards out to make it 30-13.
Union County came right back with Robinson gaining 21 yards and 15 yards for first downs. The Tigers had first-and-goal at the Hornet 5-yard line, but a penalty stalled the drive, which ended on a turnover-on-downs at the Hornet 2.
The Hornets managed a little breathing room but on a fourth-and-15, Beach was set to punt when the snap went sailing over his head and out of the end zone for a safety to make it 32-13.
Following another Union scoring drive, Beach led the Hornets on a last-minute scoring drive, connecting with Freeman on the game’s final play.
“I don’t know if it was that,” Mark Beach said of the LHS offense being bottled up — the Hornets had two drives end inside the Union red zone in addition to the fumble on the first drive. “We’ve gone thru 14 receivers, we’re out of bullets, guys got hurt and they could key on one or two of our guys that are really good.
“I don’t know if they took it out of us, but we didn’t have the guys we had at the beginning of the season, it’s been a long season, they’re a great football team, I wouldn’t take anything from them.
“We had a great season at 9-2, and made the second round of the playoffs, what else can you ask for? I get to coach high school football, what a great job.”