LORENA — It was a tight game throughout the first half. China Spring and Lorena each made strong defensive plays while flashing some offensive prowess. The difference, though, came once the third quarter began.
The Cougars scored on half of their possessions, while the Leopards struggled to find the end zone as China Spring eventually ran away with it 35-7 Friday night in Lorena.
“I thought we came out and played a little more explosive, a little more on pace and things like we thought we’d play (in the second half),” China Spring coach Mark Bell said. “In the first half, all credit to Lorena they did a great job. We kind of spit and sputtered at different times. We hadn’t played in a while. In our scrimmage we didn’t have that kind of tempo. It just took us a while to get it going. I’m real proud of our kids.”
Midway through the first quarter, China Spring seemed destined for the end zone. Running back Erik Hart picked up a handful of yards here and there before breaking through up the middle for a 21 yard gain. That burst, paired with a 27-yard reception by Steven Russo, placed the Cougars five yards away from the goal line.
Not once, but three times was Hart stuffed up the middle. The biggest of stops came on third down when Cade Michna met Hart behind the line of scrimmage for a two-yard loss. With one more shot at getting on the board, China Spring tried for a field goal but missed.
Central Texas high school football is a haven for playmakers.
The Cougars didn’t go scoreless for much longer. On their next drive, quarterback Cayden Johnson found Steven Russo down field who shook off a defender and dove over the goal line for the score.
Hart, once again, was key in setting up that drive with four carries of his own. While Hart made the plays for the Cougars offensively, it was Ben Johnston who stepped up for Lorena. His play was vital with running back Thor Hoffman on the sideline with an injured ankle.
After both teams went 3-and-out following China Spring’s touchdown, it was Lorena who marched down the field.
Behind a pair of 20-yard passes by Cam Bryant – one to Ben Craig and the other to Johnston – the Leopards set up their offense inside the red zone. After another reception by Johnston, Lorena was rolling inside the 10. And it was Johnston who got the call on 4th-and-goal on the 2-yard line.
Johnston snapped the ball and rolled to his right looking to pass before running it himself up the middle for the touchdown. That tied things up with merely seconds left in the first half.
“I thought (we) played with tremendous effort,” Lorena coach Ray Biles said.
Lorena hoped to keep that momentum going, receiving the kick to start the second half. But a pair of incomplete passes didn’t help as the Leopards were forced to punt.
“We have to learn how to finish games,” Biles said. “We go in tied at half time against a very fine football team. We came out in the second half and we didn’t execute.”
China Spring didn’t waste much time after that with a drive that started with a 44-yard Russo reception and ended with a 26-yard touchdown run by Hart. And the Cougars kept rolling after recovering a fumble by Lorena on the kickoff. Three plays later, Johnson hit Tyrik James on the five-yard fade for the score.
The Cougars added to their lead three minutes later as Johnson found a wide open Nicholas Brooks over the top for a 32-yard touchdown.
After forcing Lorena to punt twice more, the China Spring offense scored one last time. Johnson launched a pass that Russo sprinted under and ran into the end zone for a 59-yard reception.
“I thought Cayden was a little pumped up early,” Bell said. “He overthrew (Russo) a few times, but once the second half came he did a good job.”
Johnson finished the night 17-for-24 for 275 yards and four touchdowns. Russo led the receiving corps with 171 yards off seven catches, while Hart racked up 120 rushing yards.
“The offensive line did a good job, especially in the second half,” Bell said. “Erik came out and did some really good things. Conditioning was a big part of tonight’s game, too. It was hot and humid. I’m real proud of our kids. Anytime you can find a way to beat Lorena is always a good win. They’ve got a great program and coach.”