Extra special victory

Punt returns, defense send WGH to playoffs

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Warren G. Harding’s Jamel Anderson, left, and Howland’s Jordan Williams fight for possession of a fumble during the second quarter of the Raiders’ 28-6 victory Friday in Howland.

HOWLAND — There were several “special” moments Friday for the Warren G. Harding High School football team when it traveled to Lombardo Field to take on Howland.

During the game, special teams played a huge role in the Raiders’ 28-6 win over the Tigers in what was the regular-season finale for both clubs.

Afterward, the Harding players and coaches received the special news that their win, combined with several out-of-town results that went their way, secured a playoff berth for the Raiders.

Harding (7-3) will play on the road next Friday in the opening round of the Division II, Region 5 tournament. At press time, the Raiders’ opponent was not determined.

Harding’s playoff-clinching victory can be credited in large part to the play of its special teams, which set up the game’s first touchdown and directly resulted in two other scores.

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Warren G. Harding’s Deaveion Burgess, left, makes a reception and pulls away from Howland’s Eric Babinchek.

“We’ve been working hard on that aspect of our game as of late,” Harding coach Steve Arnold said. “Special teams are one-third of the game. We preach that. Our special teams have been consistent all year long, and we stress the importance of keeping that part of our game sharp.”

After winning the coin toss, Harding elected to defer to the second half and begin the game by kicking off to Howland.

The kickoff was a pooch kick, which landed near the Howland 30. The ball bounced untouched for 10 yards before being recovered by Harding’s Marcus Wilkins at the Howland 20.

Five plays later, Harding quarterback Elijah Taylor rushed in from 1 yard out to give Harding a 7-0 lead.

The two defenses then took over until Harding’s Jamel Anderson returned a punt 83 yards to paydirt midway through the second quarter. Harding took the 14-0 advantage into the locker room following a first half that saw the two teams combine for just 143 total yards of offense.

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Warren G. Harding's Marcus Brown, left, rushes to the outside while being pursued by Howland's Keith Cruse Jr. during the first quarter on Friday.

Harding’s special teams, and Anderson in particular weren’t through. After Howland was stopped on a three-and-out on its first possession of the second half, Anderson fielded a punt at the Tigers’ 40 and returned it for a touchdown to give Harding a 21-0 advantage.

“Jamel (Anderson) showed his speed and his field awareness on those returns,” Arnold said. “He found the seam, and he was gone. And our blockers did a tremendous job of setting things up.”

Howland (4-6) finally put together the most sustained drive of the night, an 11-play, 97-yard march capped by a William Hines 5-yard touchdown run. However, Harding answered with a 52-yard, eight-play drive. Emari Burgess’ 1-yard run and Noah Murry’s fourth extra-point kick with 4:34 left in the game capped the scoring.

Taylor completed 7-of-16 passes for 85 yards. He also rushed for a team-high 16 yards as the Harding ground game was limited to just 57 yards.

Howland was paced by Hines, who gained a game-high 146 yards on 17 carries. Garrett Deemer added 40 yards on nine carries, however Howland’s passing game was held to just one reception for negative yardage.

Howland was without starting quarterback David Burman, who was out with an injury.

“We’re pretty banged up right now, but I’m proud of the way we fought against an extremely talented opponent,” Howland coach Steve Boyle said. “We dug ourselves a hole with that opening kickoff and those two punt returns, and that’s on me. I take full blame.”

Despite the loss, Boyle was upbeat about the future of the Howland program.

“I definitely think we’re moving in the right direction,” Boyle said. “We still have a lot of work to do, and it starts (today). I’m excited about the future.”

Meanwhile, Arnold was simply happy to get out of Howland with a win.

“I knew they would play us tough, I knew they wanted to ruin our season,” Arnold said. “Overall, we played well defensively and of course our special teams played well. But we still have to improve quite a bit moving forward.”

“Forward” for Harding includes its second straight trip to the playoffs.