By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Just ask Brighton sophomore receiver Tyler Burnett. Moments after the Henry County Patriots took the lead 24-21 in front of their home Patriot Stadium crowd, the Brighton Cardinals had to regain momentum before things snowballed.
As the trademark Henry County sirens barely drown out the Patriot faithful, Brighton senior quarterback Malik Jackson looked to strike quick to snatch back the mojo for the Cardinals On the first play of the fourth quarter of the TSSAA Division I-5A Quarterfinal showdown, Jackson dropped back and had to time to change his read.
The ball spiraled in the air and landed in the unlikely hands of Burnett. The wide out made an over-the-head catch and sprinted into the end zone to regain the advantage for the Cardinals 27-24.
“It really wasn’t supposed to go to me,” Burnett acknowledged. “He said to look it off and get away from the two safeties. Then he just turnt it. When I saw the ball in the air I knew I had to make a play. I knew we were going to get this ‘dub’. It feels good to make history.”
That play helped sparked the Cardinals to uncharged territory in school history. Brighton prevailed 34-31 over Henry County, earning the Cardinals their first trip to the State Semifinals. Brighton will travel to the unbeaten Beech Buccaneers this Friday.
“You come up here and do it up here in Henry County, you can look up at their wall right there,” Brighton Head Coach Robin Jacobs said. “We’re trying to get to where they’re at. Our kids were just resilient. We got ahead and then we fell behind. Then got ahead again. It actually wasn’t a shootout. We were happy with what was going on. We felt we can move the ball.”
Henry County entered the Quarterfinal game looking to add another State title to its legacy after winning two championship this decade. Brighton came into the contest with two Quarterfinal appearances on its resume’.
The Cardinals (9-4) second trip to this point started off well with Jackson hitting Aaron Alston for a 63 yard gain to the 13-yard line on the first drive. A few plays later, Lance West crossed the goal line from a yard out to make the score 7-0 in favor of Brighton less than 2 minutes into the game.
“At the beginning of the game what kind of helped us out was putting up points quick,” West said. “We knew they had the home advantage. All that talk about their fans and the atmosphere just gave us that since of urgency.”
The Patriots (9-4) answered back with a pair of field goals including a 47 yarder off the foot of senior Bailey Armas.
Henry County trailed 7-6 entering the second quarter. The Patriots took their first lead of the night when Caleb McCutcheon ran for a touchdown to make the tally 13-7 at the 9:58 mark.
Brighton answered back 58 second later when Jackson fired a laser down the sideline hitting West in stride from out the backfield for a 43-yard TD pass. The Cardinals were back ahead 14-13.
The advantage grew for the Cardinals right before halftime when Brighton drove down the field leading to West’s third score of the night — 1-yard touchdown run to make the score 21-13.
Henry County came out the locker room swinging scoring in less than 3 minutes when Jayln Foster cross the goal line from 5 yards out. The Patriots’ two-point conversion deadlock the game at 21-21.
Armas gave the Patriots the lead late in the third quarter when he drilled a 28-yard field goal to make the score 24-21 with 3:16 remaining in the period.
“We were thinking about last week and how we came back from 34-7,” West said of Brighton’s mindset. “We just wanted to do the same.”
The previous week in Round Two, Brighton overcame the 27-point deficit to Southwind to survive and advance. With the Patriots looking for a knockout punch, the Cardinals stayed composed and Burnett made the catch for the go-ahead score early in the fourth quarter.
Brighton increased its 27-24 lead late in the fourth quarter when West broke loose from four Henry County tackles to score on a 25-yard run. The Cardinals were ahead 34-24 with 4:15 left in the game.
The Patriots were forced to pass and try to comeback off the arm of junior quarterback Will Parrish. The signal caller drove his team down the field completing an 18-yard pass in the end zone Lukas Reynolds with 2 minutes and 40 seconds remaining. The score was 34-31.
After the Cardinals were forced to punt, Henry County had one more shot at victory with a minute and 29 seconds left.
Brighton’s defense stepped up with Cameron John making a sack on a third down deep in the Patriot backfield. On fourth down Henry County fired a pass toward the end zone but Alston was there to bat the ball to the ground.
When Jackson took the snap from fellow senior DJ Barker in the victory formation, he took a knee for Brighton history. The Cardinals were heading to the State Semifinals for the first time.
“We wanted it and we played hard,” West said. “We kind of got down close there to the end. But we wanted it bad enough. We knew what we had to do because no Brighton team has done this since 2003. We knew we could come out here and change that.”
Jacobs said overcoming a pair of deficits in the hostile environment of Henry County didn’t surprise him.
“Our kids just kept coming and fighting and fighting,” he said. “They’ve done it all year long since we were 1-3. The Kirby game we came back and won 52-46. Since then our kids have fought all 48 minutes. If we taught them anything — to never give up. I hope they carry with them their whole life.
“We got our players back,” Jacobs said of the turn around. “But the thing is we played 6 games on the road this year. We were all but Covington. I tell them let’s get our feet under us, just get back to playing under control.”
The Cardinals have completed their redemption tour so far in the playoffs exercising First Round demons beating Dyer County. Then Brighton finally came out on the winning end of a thriller beating Southwind 49-48.
Then the Cardinals avenged last year’s playoff loss to Henry County of 41-40 in Brighton. Now the Cardinals look to continue their journey of making history taking on the undefeated Buccaneers.
“Beech beat these guys in overtime by 3 points,” Jacobs noted. “I’m sure they’re going to be very similar to Henry County in game plan. We’re excited to play them. We talked at halftime about, ‘Do we belong?’ Does Brighton belong? That’s what we’ve been fighting for.
“Winning at Brighton hasn’t been the problem,” he continued. “It’s been the playoffs. You take our first year away, we have a 17-4 league record, two district championships and a runner-up. Now you add a Semifinal berth, hope it’s leading to better things our team and our kids.”
West said the days leading up to their trip to Hendersonville will be crucial in the Cardinals’ chances of making history again.
“We have to be mentally and physically prepared,” he concluded. “We know they will be a team that is not easy to beat. We have to go out all week and prepare hard. It will be whoever wants it the most.”