Byram Hills quarterback Brett Stafford tossed three second-half touchdown passes Friday night, while teammate Jay Bancone proved to be a gutsy, inspirational sidekick by making big plays all evening despite a high fever that should have kept him home.
But it still took a bit of serendipity on the game’s final play before the Bobcats were able to escape with a thrilling 24-23 victory and spoil host Lakeland’s 2017 Homecoming. The roller-coaster ride ended with the Hornets unable to convert on their extra-point try that would have sent the teams into overtime.
The Bobcats had been kept off the scoreboard until Skyler Healy booted a 33-yard field goal that tied the score on the last play of the opening half. But they came back on the field for the second half and erupted for three touchdowns via their passing game, turning a contest that had been plagued by early penalties into a thrill-a-minute nail-biter.
“This is the stuff that you dream about as a little kid coming out on Friday night,” said Bobcats head coach Doug Carpenter, who told the Hornets’ Mike Meadows afterwards that the two schools should play a lot more often.
“I told him I wish we could play 10 times because this was fun football,” added Carpenter. “I feel awful for the kid who missed the extra point. I just hope he uses that as motivation. You hate to walk off on a win like that, but being a kicker in high school football I think is one of the hardest things you can do.”
Long before his game-ending misfortune, the Hornets’ Jorge Duque had started the evening’s scoring when he kicked a 26-yard field goal with 2:38 left in the opening quarter. Lakeland’s 3-0 lead held up for quite a while as the Bobcats had an apparent Stafford-to-Antonio Aversa 17-yard touchdown pass called back by a penalty with just under five minutes remaining in the half and Healy’s subsequent 37-yard field-goal try was blocked.
Byram Hills had another opportunity to even the score with just 4.4 seconds left on the clock before halftime. The 33-yard field goal by Healy sent the teams trotting off the field and Lakeland’s newest Hall of Fame inductees onto it.
When play resumed, it didn’t take long for the Bobcats to gain the upper hand. They moved 69 yards on six plays and grabbed the lead when Stafford threw a long pass down the right sideline that Chris Stafford won a battle for and then tiptoed along the sideline for the last 30 yards to complete a 61-yard play. The point-after gave Byram a 10-3 edge not quite three minutes into the third quarter.
The ill Bancone soon made a big impact by intercepting a Michael Capozzi pass and returning the ball to the Hornets’ 36-yard line. The Bobcats took advantage by scoring their second touchdown seven plays later as Stafford, from the 7-yard line, lobbed a pass into the left side of the end zone that Aversa hauled in over his shoulder. Healy’s PAT stretched the Byram Hills margin to 17-3 with 3:25 to go in the third quarter.
But Lakeland finally gave the large turnout something to cheer about again as John White soon bolted up the middle and raced 44 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the period. Then, despite a couple of flags that moved the ball to the 1-yard line, the Hornets failed to run it in on the two-point try.
The Hornets’ comeback continued as they began another drive at their own 33 with five minutes remaining and, four plays later, Tommy Barnett got to the left sideline and outran everyone 44 yards for a touchdown. Capozzi’s pass to White in the right side of the end zone for the two-point conversion tied the game at 17-all with 3:38 remaining.
The Bobcats responded almost immediately as quarterback Stafford connected with Bancone deep down the left sideline on third and eight for his third touchdown pass, this one a 59-yarder. Healy’s kick gave Byram a 24-17 lead with just 2:35 on the clock.
“His composure has been fantastic,” said Carpenter about Stafford, who took over when junior quarterback Jack Kenny was sidelined. “He’s come a long way. He is a tough kid. It’s been fun to watch him grow the last several weeks into a running/throwing quarterback. He truly is a dual-threat quarterback.”
So too, though, is the Hornets’ Capozzi, who proceeded to use his legs as well as his right arm during a 62-yard drive that was kept alive by an interference penalty on the Bobcats with just seconds left in the game. That paved the way for Capozzi to roll to his right and throw to White for a touchdown with no time left on the clock.
Regrettably for the Hornets, the point-after kick by Duque never got very high off the ground and wound up sailing under the crossbar as the giddy Byram players raced off the field in celebration.
“I was so proud of how resilient our kids were,” said Carpenter, just moments before getting doused by them with the Gatorade bucket. “We are one resilient group and we’re gonna enjoy it tonight.”
The victory in their regular-season finale was the fourth in a row for the Bobcats, who dropped their first two games but now get to travel to Harrison this weekend for the first round of Class A sectional playoffs.
“We’re gonna see a talented football team no matter who we play,” said Carpenter, unaware at the time where the Bobcats would be heading next. “But we will play anybody. We’re not backing down. With great work and great preparation, we can have another chance to be in a close game at the end of the fourth quarter, and that’s all we can ask for.”