HS football: Last-minute TD lifts Westfield past Southport

HS football: Last-minute TD lifts Westfield past Southport

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HS football: Last-minute TD lifts Westfield past Southport

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Generic High School football Doug McSchooler / for The Star

Generic High School football Doug McSchooler / for The Star

Down by three on the road with just 16 seconds remaining, Westfield senior quarterback Ryan Pepiot dropped back and surveyed his options. On the right side of the field, he spotted Evan Manley, sprinting for separation against man coverage. Pepiot unloaded a strike right on target, Manley shook off his defender, and trotted 40 yards into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown in a thrilling 40-36 road win against Southport Friday night.

“One of our coaches just wanted to make sure that I got the ball to the right guy, which was Evan Manley,” Westfield coach Jake Gilbert said. “And he made a tremendous play, ball was on the money, and Evan just did a fantastic job. We got what we wanted, and the kids just made the right play.”

The victory for the Shamrocks (2-0) seemed to be nearly impossible just moments earlier when Cardinals (1-1) quarterback Luke Johnston lofted a touchdown pass to his tight end Evan Higgs—his second touchdown catch of the night—which put the Cardinals up by one. A crafty double-reverse on the two-point conversation extended the lead to three with just over 1 minute remaining on the clock.

But when it was nothing but bedlam on the field, made wilder by an excited Southport crowd that felt they might have won their home-opener, the Shamrock’s sideline remained focused.

In the first half, a 20-0 run by the Shamrocks seemed to make clear who the more powerful team was, but the Cardinals, energized by some pinpoint throws from Johnston, who completed 23-of-32 passes for 203 yards, would not be kept down.

“Both sides, both offenses were rolling, especially late. Two good teams, but we have to learn from this,” Southport coach Bill Peebles said.

Despite a 4-for-4 touchdown drive by Johnston—which culminated in a well-placed 6-yard fade route to Higgs in the corner of the end zone—the senior signal-caller went through a dizzying three-pass stretch to kick off the second quarter in which he went 0-of-3 with two interceptions, including one which was brought back for a touchdown by Jackson Garret.

Following those Cardinal mishaps, the Shamrocks built a daunting 20-7 lead after Pepiot placed a 19-yard touchdown pass in the hands of Manley late in the second quarter.

However, with less than 3 minutes remaining in the first half, Southport defensive back Cameron Gaines stepped in front of a misfire from Westfield’s Pepiot. Gaines hauled in the interception at the 50-yard line with nothing but green grass in front of him, but midway through his would-be pick-six, the ball slipped out from his arm despite not being contacted by a defender. Luckily, he recovered his own fumble, and, four plays later, Johnston took a 20-yard scamper into the end zone to put the Cardinals up 21-20, their first lead since jumping out to the initial 7-0 lead.

But as the game wore on, it became clear that whomever had the ball last would likely come out victorious, as both teams struggled in pass coverage in the fourth quarter. It was Manley who was able to capitalize, making the best play of his career with the game-winner.

“I couldn’t breathe,” he joked after the game with teammates still jumping all over him. “Everyone was surrounding me. It was crazy, everyone was hype.”

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