I guess it just wasn't meant to be.
Most coaches will tell you there are no moral victories, and the Gaston players weren't having much of it afterwards, but Greyhounds coach Gary Hedin was proud of his kids despite dropping a tough home game, 20-14, versus Neah-Kah-Nie Friday night, Sept. 20, on a beautiful night at Gaston High School.
"We haven't been in too many games this year," Hedin said afterwards. "So just getting our guys to believe again was huge."
And for three-and-a-half quarters they did.
Gaston (0-3) led 8-0, then 14-8 midway through the fourth quarter, but two very big defensive mishaps cost the Greyhounds, and did so at two very inopportune times.
Tied 14-14 with just under three minutes remaining and Neah-Kah-Nie facing a fourth and seven from the Gaston 26 yard line, Pirates quarterback Mychal Kelly tossed a ball up for grabs near the far left goal line. With two Greyhounds blanketing him, the ball was batted up into the air and landed softly in the unsuspecting hands of Neah-Kah-Nie receiver Dustin Donaldson, who then took two steps into the end zone to give the visitors the lead. The play was the second fourth down conversion of the drive, with the first coming as the result of a Gaston face mask penalty.
"We have some young guys in a lot of positons and they're still learning," the coach said. "So we'll learn from that, but that doesn't change the fact that these are good kids."
Donaldson, who caught two balls for 54 yards and the deciding touchdown, admitted there may have been a little good fortune involved with what amounted to the game-winning score.
"It might have been a little luck," the receiver said. "When it was coming down it looked like it was going to be picked. All three of us went up to get it and it popped up into the air and I got it."
While things finished on a high note for the visiting Pirates, it didn't start that way. After taking the opening kickoff and driving 37 yards in five plays, on the sixth play Kelly threw a quick out that was intercepted by Gaston's Brandon Clowdus who took it 84 yards for a touchdown.
"I was watching film and I studied," the sophomore Clowdus said. "I saw him look at 81, so I jumped it and got the pick. When I caught it I was like, 'let's go.'"
And he went, all the way for the game's first score.
After a successful two-point conversion made it 8-0, Neah-Kah-Nie (1-1) answered to start the second quarter, driving 61 yards thanks primarily to running back Evan Wiley who tallied 58 yards on five carries before Kelly punched it in from three yards out. Wiley subsequently ran the two-point try in and the score was tied 8-8.
Gaston answered however, retaking the lead thanks again to Clowdus, who caught a fade route from Greyhounds quarterback Andrew Clark, made a couple nifty moves, cut back across the field and went 58 yards to make it 14-8 after a failed two-point try with 1:58 left in the first half.
Hedin said Clowdus is "that kind of player," and has come to expect the unexpected from the receiver who scored five touchdowns in Gaston's season-opener versus Colton
"Brandon has some shake and bake magic in him," Hedin said. "He can make something out of nothing on a lot of plays. He's a sophomore so we're looking forward to the rest of this year, as well as having him the next two years."
Neither team could muster much offensively in the third quarter, and the Greyhounds appeared headed for their season's first victory before the Pirates found some magic of their own.
First Gaston allowed Neah-Kah-Nie a 28 yard pass play on third and 13 from their own 17 yard line. Then they gifted the visitors a first down on fourth and four from the Greyhounds' 36 yard line when half of their defensive line jumped offsides. And lastly allowed them a second consecutive fourth down conversion when Kelly rolled to his right and found Donaldson near the five yard line, setting up a four yard scoring plunge by Parker Hopkins to tie the game 14-14 with 6:51 on the clock.
After Donaldson's go-ahead score four minutes later, Gaston had a final opportunity with 2:42 remaining, but after moving the ball into Pirates territory with roughly 30 seconds on the clock, Clark was intercepted by — you guessed it — Donaldson to end the Greyhounds drive and ultimately their hopes of the season's first win.
"The interception was all instinct," Donaldson said. "My coach has been telling me that if there's no one on me then do whatever I need to do to help my team, and I decided to blitz on that and I got the pick."
Clowdus was noticeably frustrated in the wake of the defeat, but believed wholeheartedly that his team would rebound, and that as a result would get what seems like an elusive win down the road.
"We gave it our all," he said. "We fight and we're family, and we always do our best. We have confidence, and just need to keep fighting and working on the little things in practice and we'll be great."
And what were Hedin's thoughts despite ending on a sour note?
"We had a tough game last week and didn't perform the way we're capable of, but this week we played hard," the coach said. "We made some mistakes on both sides of the ball that put us in some bad spots, but the kids played hard and battled, so I'm proud of them."
Gaston next hosts Jefferson at 7 p.m. next Friday, Sept. 27, at Gaston High School.
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