CLEARWATER — A nearly three-hour emotional roller-coaster.
That’s the only way to describe Friday’s battle for the Clearwater Centennial Cup between host Clearwater High and rival Countryside. Plays made and missed, takeaways and giveaways, big plays and mistakes … everything boiled down to an unbelievable final 16 minutes that saw the visiting Cougars hold on for a 23-20 victory, snapping the Tornadoes’ two-game head-to-head win streak in the process.
After Countryside (3-0) took a nine-point advantage on a 7-yard touchdown run from Brandon Warren (25 carries, 95 yards), Clearwater (1-2) rode the dogged running of Qwa’shaun Perry (160 yards, 18 carries) into the red zone where quarterback Rent Montie hit Marcus Jeter with a 7-yard TD toss to cut the gap to three with 4:34 remaining in the third quarter.
Then everything got crazy.
Jeter sniped an aerial from Chris Cooper (265 offensive yards on the night) and returned it 53 yards to the Cougar 15 only to see Damon Byrnes-Mitchell return the favor near his own goal line.
"On the sidelines (after the turnover), all we said to each other was ‘keep your head up,’?" said Byrnes-Mitchell, who added a fumble recovery to his stat line. "We’re going to play football. We take some pride out of that."
Opportunities came and went from there. Clearwater lost a fumble at the Cougar 15, then stuffed Countryside at its own 10 on downs to keep things within reach.
Behind Byrnes-Mitchell, linebacker Anthony Burburija and end Mehki Turner, Countryside stopped Clearwater on downs at the 17 and 14, the last with 2:06 remaining.
The Cougars looked to run out the clock, but instead Tornadoes junior Damon Dennis popped the ball loose and Demetrius Garland recovered 3 yards from the promised land. On the next play, Arkevias Reynolds did the same, pouncing on the loose ball at his 15 to lock up the win.
"The kids just have a mind-set that they’re not going to let a bad play set them back from what they want to do," said Countryside coach Eric Schmitz. "They rally around each other and get the next play for their teammates. It’s really special to watch."
Both teams turned the ball over five times on the evening, none bigger than when a Clearwater kick returner ran the ball 98 yards for an apparent second-quarter TD but was ruled to have flipped the ball to an official before crossing the goal line, seeing it roll out of bounds for a touchback. Countryside then drove for a Tyrese Fortune TD, turning a possible 14-3 deficit into a lead it wouldn’t lose the rest of the night.
Montie got Clearwater on the board first with a nice 25-yard scramble, and Jeter rambled 10 yards to pay dirt in the third quarter. The Cougars opened with a 39-yard Davis Hughes field goal and added a second-quarter Cooper-to-Cardrece Mobley 26-yard strike.
"I’ve never felt closer to a group of guys in my life," Cooper said. "I think that’ll help us do well this season."