HUGHESVILLE - Coming off a 1-9 season, which included a 45-7 loss at Central Columbia to begin last season, coach Andy Brown had been emphasizing playing hard for the entire game in preseason workouts.
Because his Spartans did just that, it was hard for him to be too disappointed by a heartbreaking 13-12 defeat at the hands of Central in Friday's 2013 season opener.
"We knew it would be a tough game. Central is very good up front. We thought we could do some things and be physical and we were," said Brown. "We gave ourselves a shot at the end. We played hard for four quarters. I'm proud of how we played. We just need to finish some things and we'll be alright.
"I told our kids that there's not a whole lot I can say that's going to make them feel better at this point but look at where we were at this point last year to where we are now. I know it's different teams but our kids fought and competed for four quarters and that was the biggest thing we preached all offseason and all preseason and they did that tonight. We just need to finish now."
Central, the defending Heartland II conference champions, stopped four straight Hughesville passes late after the Spartans had reached the Blue jay 16-yard line to hold onto the victory after Cody Bowman had scored the go-ahead touchdown with just under three minutes to play.
That heartbreaking result overshadowed an outstanding performance by Hughesville junior halfback Nick Yeager, who ran for 181 yards on 24 carries and also caught four passes for 70 yards and accounted for both of Hughesville's touchdowns. He ended the night with 252 all-purpose yards. But two missed conversions, one on a PAT and one on a two-point try, ultimately doomed the Spartans, along with some other missed scoring opportunities.
"Nick Yeager played a tremendous game. What a tough kid. He's not the biggest guy but what a tough runner. He ran so hard and had a terrific night," said Brown.
Neither team mustered up anything in the first half, as penalties and plays that went for negative yardage stalled drives for both teams, resulting in a scoreless half. Both teams came close to the end zone but each defense came up with a timely interception inside it's opponent's red zone to keep each other off the scoreboard.
The start of the second half offered an immediate contrast to the first half, however, as Central scored on its first drive to draw first blood with Danny Koch breaking through a hole on the right side of the offensive line and taking it 46 yards to the end zone on just the fourth play from scrimmage of the half to give the Blue jays a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the third quarter.
Hughesville answered on the ensuing drive as the Spartans chewed up almost four minutes of clock and put together a seven-play, 68-yard drive that was capped by a 30-yard hookup from Logan Henry to Yeager for the score. Henry and Yeager had also connected earlier on the drive for 21 yards. A bad snap doomed the PAT, however, which would ultimately prove costly.
"We had new guys snapping, new guys holding and new guys kicking and the first game sometimes that happens and you've got to find a way to fight back from that," said Brown.
The Spartans would then benefit from an interception as Trey Smith picked off Blue jay passer Austin Farver after his throw went off the fingertips of Cody Bowman, and the Spartans then capitalized by putting together a near-five minute drive on 10 plays that was capped by a five-yard run for a touchdown by Yeager on the final play of the third quarter. Given their problems on the previous PAT, the Spartans elected to go for two, but Henry's pass failed, another play that would prove costly.
The teams traded punts on their first two drives of the fourth quarter, with Central taking possession with 5:34 remaining at the Hughesville 42. Farver found Payton Aucker for 24 yards on the second play of the drive to put the Blue jays in business at the Spartan 30 and from there, Bowman took charge on three straight rushing plays, the final of which he went 21 yards up the middle to put the Blue jays ahead 13-12. Bowman would finish with 55 yards on eight carries while his teammate Koch had 84 yards on 15 carries.
After the two-point conversion failed, Hughesville advanced the ball all the way to the Central 16-yard line with under a minute to play but from there, the four straight incomplete passes combined with a false start penalty that took a field goal attempt out of the equation for Hughesville clinched the game for the Blue jays.
"Maybe if we didn't get the false start penalty there (we might have tried the field goal), maybe if the ball is where it was without the penalty but with it moving back five yards I didn't think we had the leg to do that there," said Brown.