Helena takes first loss in tight region title game with Benjamin Russell

Published 1:24 am Saturday, October 28, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

ALEXANDER CITY – The Helena Huskies did everything to set themselves up for a shot at a victory and a regional championship, but they fell short to the Benjamin Russell Wildcats, 20-17, on Oct. 27.

After Helena took its first loss of the season, Huskies coach Richie Busby looked to the positives from their performance against the top team in the region.

“Yeah, we got beat and we didn’t win the region championship, but we’re still hosting a playoff game,” Busby said. “We’ve just got to rally back from this and learn from it. It was a hard-fought game and I think we came out injury free. So, hopefully we’ll come back next week and be ready to play against a good Vestavia team, which is just like another playoff game.”

Benjamin Russell flew out of the gate with an interception on just the third play of the game. Then, on the Wildcats’ first play on offense, Auburn commit Malcolm Simmons grabbed a catch in the end zone for a 38-yard score and a 6-0 lead just 1:14 into the game.

Helena struggled to keep up on its second drive of the game and had a quick punt. The Wildcats threatened to get down the field in response, but Helena’s defense flipped a switch midway through the drive and earned the stop.

The Huskies responded with an improved drive on offense. Domynyck Santiago made a big run to get Helena just inside the red zone, and the Huskies converted a 4th and 1 run on the 14. However, Helena had to settle for a field goal attempt which was no good for 38 yards.

The Huskies defense got off the field without allowing a score on their next drive, and the offense quickly took advantage by getting down the field.

On third down, Nate Jones grabbed a 26-yard catch that set up Jordan Washington to score on the next play from 13 yards out to give Helena a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter.

Three plays into Ben Russell’s next drive, Parker Copeland came up with a fumble in the backfield to give Helena the ball in Wildcats territory. The Huskies made it to 1st and Goal, but even though they were stopped, they still hit a 37-yard field goal to extend their lead to 10-6.

That lead wouldn’t last for long as Ben Russell hurried down the field to score. A 25-yard pass on the second play of the drive and another 20-yard gain in the air set up a 10-yard rushing touchdown by Ta’Jerious Wilson.

That gave the Wildcats a 13-10 lead, which was the lead at halftime as Helena couldn’t score on its final drive before the break.

With Helena needing positive momentum to start the third quarter, it got just that thanks to a fumble recovery on Ben Russell’s opening drive of the half. A personal foul threatened to derail the drive with a 3rd and 25, but Washington, the man more known for making plays with his legs, extended for a spectacular catch in coverage downfield for 28 yards and a first down.

The Huskies then converted a 4th and 1 to set up a 28-yard touchdown run by Joseph Roberto, which gave Helena the lead once again, 17-10.

Helena’s defense continued to make stops on Ben Russell’s remaining drives in the third quarter. The Huskies held strong on 4th and 1 to force a turnover on downs, and on the next Wildcats drive, Helena recovered from 30 penalty yards on one play to earn a third down stop and blow up a fake field goal.

However, Helena went three-and-out in both of the ensuing drives after those stops, and on the latter drive, Ben Russell blocked the punt to set itself up in Huskies territory. With less than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, David Lawson hauled in a 26-yard catch and run to hit the end zone quickly and retook the lead for the Wildcats.

With the Huskies now down 20-17, Helena earned a first down on its next drive but had to punt. Ben Russell then looked like it would ice the game with a scoring drive, especially after a 50-yard catch by Cederian Morgan.

The Huskies defense answered the call though and forced incompletions in the end zone from both Simmons and Morgan to get the ball back off a turnover on downs.

With the game on the line and 1:32 on the clock, Helena was stifled by Ben Russell’s defense. The Huskies were unable to make any plays to advance the chains and turned the ball over on downs to the Wildcats, who took a knee to close out the 20-17 win and the region championship.

At the end of the day, Busby thought quarterback play made the difference, and he complimented the Wildcats offense while acknowledging Torrey Ward’s absence and an injury for Hunter Hale that limited his production hurt Helena’s air attack. He believed the Huskies did everything to put themselves a couple of plays away from a win.

“We were able to keep the game kind of muddied, kind of nasty and gave ourselves a chance, and we just don’t hit the sweep pass down there that we had called,” Busby said. “And the big momentum swing, if we hit that right there at that time, it’s 24-13 with not a whole lot of time left and the way our defense played. The defense played great. That’s a high scoring offense and they held them down all night.”

Helena’s challenges will only increase from here going into the playoffs, and he hopes that this experience in a close and meaningful game will help them avoid the same mistakes next time.

“I hope this was just like a playoff for a region championship, so I hope we take this experience so that the next time we get in this situation, we can make a play,” Busby said. “The margin of error gets so small in big games and in the playoffs, and we’ve just got to find a way to get over the top and make a play when it really matters.”

Jordan Washington ran for 104 yards and a touchdown off 28 carries in addition to his one reception for 28 yards. Carson Acker was 5-for-14 passing for 47 yards, and his top target was Jones with three catches for 42 yards.

Helena will close out the regular season with a non-region game at Vestavia Hills on Thursday, Nov. 2. The Huskies will still host a first-round playoff game against Wetumpka a week later, who has won five of its last six games going into the final week of the regular season.