In one of the best high school football games you will ever see, the Mansfield Tigers defeated the Charleston Tigers 28-24 at Alumni Stadium in Charleston. Twelve of Mansfield’s 24 points were scored by Layton Howard on a kick return for a touchdown and an electrifying 100-yard return of an interception with less than one minute to go in the game.
Mansfield (5-1, 2-1) was on the brink of going 1-2 in conference play and being in trouble of possibly not making the playoffs. Charleston, clinging to a three point lead, marched the ball down the field, with a steady running attack led by Breckon Ketter, taking over eight minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter. Charleston was eating up the clock and keeping the Mansfield offense on the sideline. With approximately 45 seconds remaining in the game, Mansfield’s Layton Howard intercepted a pass at the goal line and returned it all the way, 100 yards, for the winning touchdown. After the game, Howard said he read a key off the Charleston offense that told him the play was going to be a pass. Howard stepped in front of the ball and took off down the visitors sideline and no one could catch him. The play gave Mansfield its first lead of the game with less than a minute left to play in the game.
Charleston would get the ball back with approximately 35 seconds in the game. After a few completed passes to the sideline, the clock ran out, and Mansfield had a victory that will be talked about for the ages.
The loss gave Charleston (2-4, 2-1) its first conference loss of the season. The Tigers were seemingly about to put the game out of reach by taking time off the clock and forcing Mansfield to use all of its remaining time outs.
Had the game ended differently with Charleston sustaining a very long fourth quarter drive to put the game away for the Tigers, we would all be talking about the epic fourth quarter drive in which the Tigers ran the ball and passed sparingly to keep making first downs and put the game out of reach for Mansfield. It almost worked out that way, but it didn’t. Charleston played with great heart both offensively and defensively. But it was not to be.
After the game, an emotional Mansfield coach, Tim Cothran, could barely speak. With his voice almost gone, Cothran praised the effort of both teams. “Two great teams. We knew it was going to be a dog fight. We just caught the break. It was going to come down to who caught a break, and we caught a break. Excellent players on that side (Charleston) of the field. Excellent coaches (Charleston.) Excellent game, we just caught a break. I am proud of our kids. Down 21-7 at the half, not giving up, I think Will Meadows blocking a PAT just kind of gave us a little bit of tone, a little bit of a spark. Then coming out and getting a stop, able to put together a great drive, getting us back in it, a little heart, a little momentum. Defense really rose up, holding them right there to three points, what can I say? Just a phenomenal game. I have nothing but respect and love for Charleston. Ricky May is a dear friend of mine, great job, great coaching. This is the toughest conference. Some tough teams. And it’s going to be this way for the next four weeks. Because you (Mansfield) still got Cedarville that’s going to do some damage, Lamar who is going to do some damage, Booneville, obviously, until somebody knocks them off, they’re the returning champs. So, this is a really tough conference, and somebody, unfortunately, is going to get left out (of the playoffs.) A good team is going to get left out because this is a very good conference. It’s just going to be this way from here on out.” When asked about his senior class of players, Cothran responded, “They’re just football players. They are 14, 15 strong, and they are football players; they’re gamers. Had a disappointing week last week, we didn’t execute as well as we wished we could have. Greenland made some great plays, was physical on defense, and these guys, we challenged them this week in practice, we really got after them, and they rose to the challenge. Put together a good plan, had a great week of practice, came over here, kept our heads, maintained our composure, and just put together a great game. You can’t say enough about this group of seniors, they are a very special group.”
On the play prior to Howard’s interception, Cothran said, “We talked to the white hat (referee) and we had our time out ready if needed. We were just hoping for a stop. The defense could have fallen asleep, it’s very easy to have been flat-footed, expecting some kind of run game, but they didn’t fall asleep, they stayed focus on their job, and just didn’t give up. Real proud of them.”
With respect to the importance of the win for Mansfield, Cothran said “It put us back in the hunt. A loss tonight would have hurt us, put us in a bind, like I said, we still have a meat grinder of a schedule left. It’s tough. But we are going to enjoy this one and refocus tomorrow and get ready for Booneville.”
Charleston coach Ricky May said “We got down to the end and we felt like they were going to bring the house and we thought we had a chance to score. We really needed the points for the conference race. If it hadn’t have been for that we wouldn’t have thrown it. We just didn’t make the tackle when we had to. We just gave up a kickoff return, can’t do that, that’s just extra points they’re getting. A lot of that came down to penalties before that kick. We’ve just got to play cleaner.”
The loss was devastating to Charleston in more ways than the loss column. This was a game that was in the Tigers control and was seemingly about to be over. Howard’s return not only changed the outcome of the game but put Charleston in a position in which it must regroup from an emotional loss and prepare to go on the road again next week to Paris. The Tigers cannot look past Paris with Booneville coming to Alumni Stadium on October 25.
For Mansfield, the win at Charleston was an epic victory that will immortalize Layton Howard in the history of Mansfield football. Howard’s interception may have saved Mansfield’s season considering they were looking down the barrel at a second conference loss and the Booneville Bearcats coming to visit next Friday.
Both teams will have to put this game behind them for different reasons and focus on the next week’s conference opponent. As it has been said many times, a good team in the conference is not going to make the playoffs this year. In fact, the league is so balanced, it will be possible that a two loss team could still qualify for the playoffs. The stakes get higher with each week, but for now, we can all take a few days to savor this one as a clash of two great teams.
The updated conference standings after Friday night’s games look like this:
West Fork 0-3
If the conference race ended today, Booneville would be the top seed, Mansfield, by defeating Charleston and owning the tie breaker over Charleston, would be tied with Lamar for the second seed. Charleston, by virtue of their head-to-head win over Cedarville would be the three seed, and Cedarville would be the four seed. A very talented Greenland team would be left on the outside looking in at the teams going to the state playoffs. Of course, there are still four weeks to go in the conference season, and this can easily change with the upcoming match-ups. Next week, Mansfield plays at home against Booneville, and Charleston travels to Paris. Charleston could have an opportunity to move to second place depending on the outcome of next week’s game. A Mansfield upset over Booneville would put them in a tie in the loss column with Booneville, and the Tigers, depending on the outcome of the Lamar game, could move into the number one seed by owning the tie breaker over the Bearcats. Next week’s game in Mansfield should be another epic showdown.
So, for both teams, it is Saturday, and it is time to come down from the emotions, rest, and move on to preparations for next week. But you have to think, when the season is over, this will be a game that fans from both communities will remember for a very long time.