IRVINE – Senior linebacker Zach Hart believed he and his Western Hills teammates were a tough bunch coming into Friday’s football game here at Estill County, but who knew for sure?
Hart’s Wolverines were winless coming in, having been outscored by an average of 49-12 through seven long games.
So when Western Hills fell behind the Engineers 19-0 early in the second quarter Friday, Hart’s faith was put to the test.
“You kind of have that thought in the back of your head, like, ‘Is everybody going to step up? Are we going to stick together?’” Hart said. “But the young guys really did have a good game tonight. They didn’t let adversity take over.”
Hart said this after the Wolverines roared from behind to beat winless Estill County, 47-35, keeping Hills’ state playoff hopes firmly alive, much to the relief of everyone on the WHHS sideline.
“You have no idea how good this feels just to get a win after such a tough season,” said Hart, a standout linebacker and fullback. “We knew we were a tough bunch, and we have a tough schedule. We’re going to keep fighting.
“It’s good to get the goose egg off of our backs. This is a real confidence booster.”
Western Hills improves to 1-2 in district play, while Estill County falls to 0-8 and 0-4.
It was a balanced effort for the winners, no doubt. But if you’re looking for that extra ingredient, so to speak, that put the Wolverines over the hump, consider sophomore running back Nick Lockett.
Lockett played a key role in three second-quarter touchdowns by Western Hills that sent the two teams into the break tied at 22-22.
Lockett’s 32-yard run set up a 26-yard touchdown run by senior Casey McLean for the Wolverines’ first touchdown early in the second quarter. Lockett ran in the two-point conversion to make the score 19-8, Engineers.
On Estill’s next series, a hike way over the head of punter Mitch Plowman gave Western Hills the ball on the Engineers’ 17-yard line. Lockett ran 16 yards on first down and then scored on the next play. Lockett also ran in the conversion to cut the Estill lead to 19-16.
Hart then intercepted Estill County quarterback Kris Dennis, setting up the Wolverines on the Engineers’ 33.
Western Hills scored a minute later on a 25-yard halfback pass by Lockett to Cody Williams, putting WHHS up 22-19 late in the first quarter.
Lockett finished with 104 yards rushing on just 12 carries.
The Engineers picked up a 26-yard field goal by Levi Tipton on the final play of the first half. But Western Hills clearly had the momentum, and the visitors never let it go.
WHHS coach Don MIller said Lockett has missed several games this season – on offense at least – due to a knee ligament injury suffered in the opener against Woodford County.
Lockett played several other games at less than 100 percent physically.
“We have been using him going downhill, not doing as much cutting and stuff, but I think he’s starting to get back to where he’s able to cut, and that gave us a nice lift tonight,” Miller said of Lockett. “He’s a cut and dash type runner who sees the field really well. He did a great job tonight.
“He’s a guy we were counting on to have a big year, and I’m just really proud of him for the way he’s been able to persevere to have an injury like he did and be able to come back.”
“This,” Lockett said, “felt great.”
Though the Engineers were not completely out of this game until late, Western Hills stayed in control in the second half, thanks to more of a power game led by McLean, who packs a lot of punch on his 5-foot-9, 210-pound frame.
McLean led all runners with some 150 yards on 15 carries. He scored three touchdowns, on runs of 26, 34 and 32 yards.
McLean helped seal this win midway through the fourth quarter when he ran 14 yards on a fourth-and-two play and then 32 yards for a score that gave WHHS a 41-28 advantage with 6:48 left in the game.
Hart also scored twice from his fullback spot, on runs of 12 yards and four yards.
Lockett, McLean and Hart also took advantage of a very good game by the Western Hills’ offensive and defensive lines.
“Will Criscillis, (Jared) Banta, Sam Head ... all those guys ... Cole Collins ... all those guys up front did a really, really good job,” Miller said of his linemen.
You don’t need to just blow people off the ball when you have guys who run as hard as McLean and Hart. And Lockett is no slouch in the strength department either at 5-11 and 165 pounds.
“Zach was able to get us some yards,” Miller said. “And Casey, even on contact, is still pumping his legs and able to get us three or four yards.
“I just think I run harder in the third and fourth quarter because of how I did in the offseason,” McLean said.
“I thought they (Engineers) were looking at me so much that when they gave Casey the ball, it was just wide open with his strength and the way he runs the ball,” Lockett said.
Western Hills rolled up 450 yards of total offense, including 326 on the ground.
WHHS quarterback Nick Young passed just seven times, completing three, but two of them were big plays to Tanner Smith, covering 44 and 38 yards.
Estill County hammered out 349 yards of offense, including 306 yards rushing.
Dennis, a junior, led the Engineers’ ground game with 141 yards rushing on 20 carries, with two touchdowns. Sophomore running back Jonathan Collins added 110 yards rushing on 14 carries and two touchdowns.
The other Estill County score came on a 13-yard pass from Dennis to Plowman.
Miller was understandably proud of his players after this one.
“The biggest thing – and I told them this – is the adversity of being able to come back,” Miller said. “This was very important. We are very capable of doing a whole lot. And it’s taken us a long time to get the right mix for these guys.”
“This,” McLean said, “was tons of fun.”
It will be even more fun if the Wolverines can upset Garrard County Friday on senior night and then win their regular-season closer a week later at Powell County.
“I’d like to see us finish strong here at the end and have an opportunity make the playoffs and see what we can do,” Miller said.