Whitney Wildcats rally together for emotional homecoming win
With a game-ending, goal-line stand, Whitney (3-0) withstood a Hillsboro comeback Friday night in what will be remembered as one of the most emotional and heavy-hearted victories in Wildcat history.
On fourth down, the Eagles (1-2) fell inches short of the end zone as the buzzer sounded and the scoreboard flashed 34-26. And as the players, students and fans joined together for the school song, it was clear the Wildcats had played with a purpose.
A reminder that sometimes a game means more than a final score, with fellowship and faith, Wildcat football exemplifies the strength in friends and family.
In the past few weeks, the Wildcats have faced the unexpected loss of two stalwarts of the Whitney athletic community. Jackson Southard, a 2017 graduate who served the team as a student trainer and assistant for four years, suddenly passed away on August 29 just days after starting classes at Hill College.
Then on September 10, a tragic motorcycle accident claimed the life of Brandon Hightower. The Wildcats helped lay Hightower to rest a day before facing off against Hillsboro. Brandon, a longtime local coach and supporter at Wildcat sporting events, was the father of senior receiver Gage Hightower and sophomore cheerleader Kena Hightower.
“This had definitely been the toughest few weeks in my career, and it’s been tough on the kids, losing both Jackson and Gage and Kena’s dad,” Head Coach Kenneth Gilchrist said. “It was hard for all of us to stay focused. We’re human, too, and feel all the emotions.”
Before the game, the team presented Southard’s parents with an autographed Wildcat football, and at halftime, Gage and Kena received the honor of homecoming king and queen in front of a roaring, standing-room-only crowd.
But perhaps most fitting was the dramatic 33-yard touchdown toss from Devin Wilson to Hightower early in the second quarter.
“That play turned it around and loosened us up, and everyone knew it,” Gilchrist said.
The Eagles had the Wildcats on their heels following an immediate touchdown and fumble recovery to start the game. Whitney responded with a touchdown reception from senior Clay Richters, but the Eagles returned the extra point for the first of two safeties that helped Hillsboro build an 11-6 lead.
Determined and focused, Wilson and sophomore running back Dez Garner, who rushed 27 times for 120 yards, led the Wildcats down the field. But the drive seemed ready to stall with a fourth-and-7 at the Eagle 33-yard line.
That’s when Wilson threw up a prayer to the end zone where a leaping Hightower hauled in a touchdown.
With Hightower’s finger pointing to sky, the Wildcat faithful went into a frenzy and the team never looked back. During the next two quarters, Whitney went on a mission, rattling off 22 unanswered points with Garner, Wilson and Dantay Owens all rushing into the end zone.
Gilchrist said the Wildcat’s uncharacteristic ground attack seemed like the safest way to keep his players calm. The game plan: protect the ball and keep the Eagles’ play-making potential in check. The bruising effect of the ground game motivated the Whitney defense.
“Once we got the lead, we didn’t want to jeopardize it,” Gilchrist said. “But a lot of the credit goes to the guys on the other side of the ball. Our defense played lights out.”
Anchored by the likes of Owens (2 fumble recoveries), Juan Saucedo (16 tackles, 1 fumble recovery) and Sam Shorts (12 tackles), Gilchrist noted the defense forced six turnovers on the night. Senior Hunter Watson also had a fumble recovery and interception, while Richters picked off a pass as well.
The Wildcats also busted through the line for four sacks against the Eagles, including two from sophomore Shawntay Owens.
Down 34-11, the feisty Eagles refused to quit and added two consecutive scores. Hillsboro was in prime position to tie the game on the final drive, but it was the Wildcats’ night and the defense slammed the door shut.
“This was a tough one, and it’s not over yet,” Gilchrist said. “But we have a tight team and a great community. Our boys really pulled together for the win.”
The Wildcats will have the week off before returning to face the state-ranked Malakoff Tigers (2-0) in the district opener at Wildcat Stadium on September 29.