The Mt. Zion High School football team rallied back from a pair of deficits to dethrone three-time defending Region 6-A champion Darlington in a 20-17 thriller at Mt. Zion Stadium on Friday night, putting the Eagles in first place in the 6A-A standings heading into next week’s sub-region finale at Gordon Lee.
After scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run with 2:37 remaining in the game, MZ senior Nathan Bernhardt made another huge play on the other side of the ball, intercepting Darlington backup quarterback Logan Rice — who came in for injured Tiger standout Brad Butler in the third quarter — at the Eagle seven-yard line with 1:40 left. From there, Mt. Zion was able to run out the clock and ring the victory bell loud and proud.
“I’ve never had a feeling like that before. I can’t even describe it,” said Bernhardt of pulling down the last-minute interception.
As for Darlington being the kings of the region, the Eagle senior said it’s time for a change.
“Not anymore. Not anymore,” Bernhardt affirmed of the Tigers’ run.
Mt. Zion overcome an early 10-0 hole by getting a five-yard Picel Farley touchdown run with 7:12 left in the second quarter and then took the lead just before the break when quarterback Tristen Puckett found Bernhardt on a 20-yard scoring play on fourth-and-15 with only 24.8 ticks left in the opening half, giving MZ the 14-10 edge after the two-point conversion.
Following a scoreless third quarter that saw MZ chew up 7:11 of clock on a drive that resulted in a missed field goal, the Tigers (5-3, 3-1) regained the lead on a nine-yard touchdown run by Chandler Duggan at the 11:47 mark of the fourth quarter, putting Darlington back up, 17-14.
The Eagles had an opportunity to tie the game with 5:49, but Garrett Frazier’s field goal went wide right, handing the ball back to Darlington. But on the very first play of the ensuing possession, the Tigers coughed up the ball and MZ freshman lineman Daniel Anderson pounced on it at the Darlington 16.
That set up Bernhardt’s one-yard run on third-and-goal with 2:37 remaining, putting the Eagles on top for good.
“I’m just so proud of our kids for never quitting. We missed that last opportunity to score down there. We could have dropped our heads, but we hung in there and got a break and were able to punch it in and did what we had to do at the end to hang on,” first-year MZ coach Keith Holloway said.
The Tigers, who had won five straight entering Friday night’s game, had a 55-yard touchdown run by Rice negated on their final drive due to a holding penalty. Rice came in to replace Butler, the Tigers’ all-state signal-caller, in the third quarter after the senior left with what appeared to be an arm injury.
Butler was 2-of-7 for 22 yards through the air and rushed for 31 yards on six carries before leaving the game.
T.K. Tuggle led MZ offensively, rushing for 105 yards on 16 carries, while Bernhardt added 40 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while also hauling in four receptions for 72 yards and a score. Puckett was 4-of-9 through the air for 72 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions.
MZ lost junior center Ryan Duren to an injury on Puckett’s touchdown pass just before the half, forcing Holloway to do some maneuvering on the front line in the second half.
“We had some people playing in some positions they weren’t used to, but the kids rose to the occasion. We’re just so proud of them,” Holloway said.
And with Trion’s 6-0 win over Gordon Lee on Friday night, the Eagles are perched atop the 6A-A standings heading to Chickamauga next week.
“It means a lot. We haven’t been there in a while. It just feels really good to be a part of this team,” Bernhardt said.