LORENA — Lorena wide receiver Coree Cleveland made a quick turn and streaked toward the end zone, sending a roar through the home stands on Friday night at Leopard Stadium.
Cleveland’s 53-yard touchdown reception from Lorena quarterback Bradley Lima snatched a victory from the jaws of a heartbreaking loss as the Leopards prevailed, 20-14, over Connally.
Lorena (3-6, 2-2 in District 9-4A Division 2) had the ball and a 13-7 lead with less than 90 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But a punt snap got away from the Leopards special team unit and Connally defensive end Javion Dawkins scooped it and returned the fumble 40 yards for a Cadet touchdown.
Connally kicker Gerardo Bazaldua nailed the extra point to put the Cadets ahead 14-13 with 1:13 left.
However, Lorena, which notched its first district win last week against Robinson, wouldn’t be denied.
Lima dropped back and looked to go over the top of the Connally defense on third-and-three from the Lorena 47. But he instead found Cleveland open near the Connally sideline. Cleveland hauled in Lima’s pass, made a spin away from a defender and took off for the game-winning touchdown.
Cleveland spun around Connally defensive back R.J. Francis inside the 5 and fell into the end zone.
“Real swing of emotions,” Lorena coach Ray Biles said. “We flub up the punt, but then make a huge play and Coree gets us in the end zone. These guys are fighters. We haven’t done anything the easy way all year, so I don’t expect us to start now. Very proud of the effort tonight.”
Connally (3-6, 2-2) was left with only 37 seconds to answer. But the Cadets moved into scoring range when wide receiver Kaine Holloway took a reverse pitch, pulled up and hit quarterback Kavian Gaither for a 35-yard gain to the Lorena 15.
But Leopards defensive back Hayden Schrader intercepted backup quarterback Gaylon Glenn’s shot into the end zone with no time on the clock, preserving the Lorena win.
“We knew coming in, their back’s kind of against the wall, but the Leopards aren’t going away,” Connally coach Shane Anderson said. “They haven’t missed the playoffs since ’08. It’s a culture. It’s what they do here.”
Gaither and running back Javion Sunday rushed ford 101 and 106 yards respectively as the Cadets piled up 272 total on the ground. Gaither scored Connally’s only offensive touchdown on a six-yard run late in the third quarter.
Earlier in the second half, Lorena running back Thor Hoffman took a direct snap and scampered 42 yards for a touchdown that put the Leopards ahead 13-0.
Following the game, Biles and Anderson were both working with their coaching staffs to figure out playoff scenarios heading into the final week of the regular season.
Lorena plays at Fairfield, while Connally hosts Salado next week.
“We’ve just got to go find a way to win at Fairfield,” Biles said.
Lorena took a 7-0 lead to halftime on the strength of an efficient first offensive series and a stellar effort on defense.
The Leopards marched 72 yards the first time they had the ball, attacking the Connally defense with a diverse rushing attack.
Hoffman finished the drive with a 21-yard scoring run that gave the Leopards a touchdown lead with 6:57 left in the first quarter.
Then the Lorena defense came up with a series of crucial stops.
Gaither kept the ball on a fourth-and-four from the Lorena 32, but Leopards linebacker Riley Mitchell filled a gap and downed Gaither after a three-yard gain.
Lorena defensive backs Cade Michna and Cleveland intercepted passes to end two straight Connally drives into Leopard territory.
Following Cleveland’s pick, with 23 seconds left in the second quarter, Lorena committed a potentially costly mistake. Running back A.J. Bell took a handoff and fumbled after a three-yard gain. Francis recovered for Connally at the Lorena 16.
The Cadets handed off twice to Sunday and he gained 12 yards before Connally called timeout to set up a field goal attempt with one second left in the first half.
But the Cadets couldn’t turn the Lorena miscue into points as Bazaldua missed a 21-yard field goal try wide right.
Connally slightly outgained Lorena in total offense in the first half, 170-148, but gave up the two interceptions and the turnover on downs, all on the Leopards side of the field.