When it came down to the end and the game was in the balance on Friday night, Hollister High School’s football team dipped deep into the playbook. The Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with a bit of flair in the season opener against East Newton, scoring on a hook-and-lateral to break a tie game in a 23-16 victory.

On a fourth-and-5 play from the East Newton 30-yard line and 16 seconds to play, quarterback Layton Morgan threw a pass into the flat to Xavier Stovall. Stovall pitched to a trailing Kelby Gard, who took it the rest of the way for the game-winning score.

“That’s a play that we end practice with every Thursday, during our walk-through,” Hollister coach Rich Adkins said. “The kids know what it is and know how to run it. It was a pretty exciting ending.”

While Hollister’s defense played well throughout, giving up only a single East Newton touchdown right before the half – the other score for the Patriots came on a third-quarter kickoff return – Adkins said the offense was out of sorts throughout the game.

East Newton brought a variety of blitzes from its linebacking corps, getting clean looks at Morgan throughout the game. 

That kept the Tigers’ passing game from getting much traction, with several big-gain pass plays landing incomplete and just past the fingertips of the receiver.

“They showed a lot of resiliency,” Adkins said. “We just couldn’t seem to get it going. But we hung in there, the kids played hard and we were able to make one final play at the end. That was the difference. There are a lot of things that we can clean up.”

It could be a sign of growth as Adkins starts his second season as Hollister’s coach, that the team can go on a long road trip in the season opener, struggle on offense and in special teams, and still do enough to come away with the victory.

“We responded well,” Adkins said. “It’s nice that when things are going bad, that we were able to hang in there and make enough plays to get a win.

“Defensively, we did a good job. We talk about not giving up big plays, and that’s what you’re always looking for – if one side is not playing well, you hope the other side will pick you up. They really kept us in it.”

Hollister never trailed, scoring on a second-quarter safety and adding a short TD run by Morgan, on a drive set up by an East Newton turnover inside its own 10-yard line, to take a 9-0 lead.

The Patriots pulled to within 9-8 with a score right before the half, then Gard scored on a 50-yard run in the third quarter to make it a 16-8 game. East Newton returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, and a two-point conversion made it a 16-all score and setting the stage for the dramatic ending.

Hollister’s running game saw some success, finishing with 232 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

Gard led the way with 105 yards on 15 carries and a TD, with Cody Johnson adding 43 yards, Damien Pera rushing for 40 yards and Morgan adding 40 on the ground to go with 78 passing yards.

Up next for Hollister is the home opener on Friday against Lamar, arguably the most dominant powerhouse program in the state in recent years.

Lamar lost in the Class 2 state semifinals last season, ending its streak of seven consecutive state championships. Lamar opened the season with a 38-19 home victory over Logan-Rogersville.

“They are just so well-coached and do so many things well,” Adkins said. “You try to find advantages in every game that you play and prepare for, and it’s hard to do against a team like Lamar.

“It doesn’t matter who they have out there, they are still in the right spot at the right time. We’re going to be happy to be back at home and ready for the home opener. These kids are believers, and they think they can win any game.”

That may be another sign of growth in the program, that there is no game the players go into without the belief they will win.

“I don’t feel that our kids have the feeling that any game is not winnable, against any opponent,” Adkins said. “We might not win every game, but they’re not scared of any opponent. These kids play their hearts out every game, and that’s what I love about coaching here. 

“I know we’re going to do that on Friday night.”

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