CLAREMONT — The St. Stephens and Bunker Hill football teams were both looking for their first win of the 2019 season following Week 1 losses, and each team made positive strides on Friday night. In the end, the visiting Indians held off the Bears for a 21-13 victory at Bunker Hill Stadium.

“I’m really proud of our defense because we’ve got a lot of young kids over there and they showed some maturity tonight and grew up a lot,” St. Stephens coach Wayne Hicks said. “Now offensively we did have some big plays that went our way, and when (senior wide receiver) Zach Lee and (junior running back) Zak McLauchlin get their hands on the ball, some things can happen. You just never know when it’s gonna come.”

Bunker Hill (0-2) gained a first down before being forced to punt on its opening drive, but the Bears’ defense responded by making St. Stephens go three-and-out. The Indians received a second chance on offense when Bunker Hill fumbled away the ensuing punt, but they again failed to pick up a first down as the hosts’ defense held strong yet again.

After the Bears were unable to do anything with their second offensive possession of the night, St. Stephens (1-1) recorded the first big play of the night on third-and-5 from its own 48-yard line. Junior quarterback Connor Williams threw a screen pass to Lee near the right sideline, and Lee made several defenders miss on his way to a 52-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining in the first quarter.

The Indians’ lead didn’t last long, as Bunker Hill also scored on a huge third-down play early in the second quarter. With the Bears facing third-and-10 from their own 39, sophomore quarterback Carson Elder handed off to fellow sophomore Chadz Stevenson. It looked like Stevenson was going to take it around the left end, but instead he lateraled the ball to junior Jay Abrams, who scampered around the right side and all the way to pay dirt for a 61-yard TD run just 15 seconds into the period. The extra point failed, leaving St. Stephens with a 7-6 lead.

The Indians came right back with a 61-yard score of their own, again on third down. On third-and-6 from its own 39, St. Stephens’ Williams rifled a pass that looked like it was going to be broken up by Abrams. However, Lee was able to haul in the tipped pass and streak across the goal line to stun the Bears at the 10:11 mark of the second period. A successful extra point by Chance Yang followed, extending the Indians’ lead to 14-6.

Neither team was able to score for the rest of the first half, but it didn’t take long for St. Stephens to get back on the board in the third quarter. This time, it was McLauchlin who capped a six-play, 68-yard drive with a 43-yard TD run to make it 21-6 just over two minutes into the second half.

After the squads exchanged punts, Bunker Hill embarked on a 10-play, 78-yard scoring drive to put the ball in the end zone with just 5.4 seconds left in the third period. The Bears gained three first downs — including one on fourth-and-2 from the Indians’ 42 — before Elder found Stevenson on a screen pass and the explosive receiver did the rest, tiptoeing down the right sideline for a 35-yard TD. Blazen Bumgarner added the extra point, bringing the Bears to within eight at 21-13 with an entire quarter left to play.

St. Stephens punted on the initial drive of the fourth quarter, but Bunker Hill did the same. The Indians were again forced to punt on their next series, giving the ball back to the Bears midway through the period. Despite picking up a first down, Bunker Hill ultimately turned the ball over on downs at their own 24 with 2:58 to play.

Instead of keeping the ball on the ground, St. Stephens attempted a pass play on third-and-goal from the Bears’ 4, with Bunker Hill’s Abrams intercepting Williams in the end zone with 23.5 seconds left. The Bears made a last-ditch effort to drive down the field and were able to move the ball to midfield with 0.2 seconds remaining. Elder found Abrams on a screen pass to the left, but he was tackled after gaining just a few yards, ending the game and dashing Bunker Hill’s comeback hopes.

“Our kids came out and we had three really good days of practice and we came in and executed,” Bunker Hill coach Patrick Clark said. “… I think even with the turnovers and stuff, we had some open-field tackles that if we make, it would’ve been closer there at the end.

“If we continue to improve as much as we did over the last week, if we can continue to make those gains, we’re gonna be a tough ball team down the road,” he added. “And we proved that tonight.”

Despite the late interception, St. Stephens’ Williams completed 10 of 16 passes for 188 yards and two scores, with Lee catching both TD passes while finishing with six receptions for 146 yards. McLauchlin surpassed 100 yards of offense after carrying 17 times for 83 yards and a TD and covering 19 yards on two catches.

For Bunker Hill, Elder completed 15 of 20 passes for 120 yards and a TD. Like Williams, he was solid all night despite throwing a second-quarter interception that was picked off by St. Stephens' Troy Hicks. Elder’s top two receivers were Abrams with 10 catches for 70 yards and Stevenson with three receptions for 44 yards and a score. Abrams added two carries for 66 yards and a TD, while Stevenson had five carries for 43 yards.

St. Stephens has a bye next week before visiting Maiden on Sept. 13, while Bunker Hill hosts the Blue Devils next Friday.

“It feels great,” said Hicks of his team earning its first win. “We’ve got an off week next week, so we can work on those issues that we’re having and get well. We’ve got a few guys banged up and hopefully we can get in a little bit better shape.”

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Josh McKinney is the sports editor for the Hickory Daily Record. 

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