A few minutes after the Spartans had absorbed a 27-22 last-minute loss to visiting Centennial on Friday night, a clustered gathering of Campbell football players, coaches, parents, cheerleaders, band members, fans and even school administrators centered on first-year coach Harris Rainbow, who delivered a rousing pep talk.
“I am so proud of you,’’ he exclaimed emphatically. “There’s not one other team in this country that I would take over you. I believe in you. I believe in you. We’re going to get better from this and we are going to win.’’
The Spartans, winners of just three games the past two season, fought hard in team-like fashion and indeed provided themselves a chance to defeat a Centennial team that had whipped them 36-0 the year before. Campbell built a first half, two-TD cushion, and then later used a mid-fourth quarter score and 2-point conversion to reclaim the advantage, 22-21.
But it wasn’t meant to be. With the lead and a first down in Centennial territory with under four minutes to play, the Spartans turned the ball over. Quarterback Jimmy Meyer then led the Knights back down the field 71 yards as his 1-yard sneak with 44 seconds remaining provided Centennial with the comeback victory. The Spartans, who on a lively and well attended opening game night on the CHS campus, were unable to mount anything offensively in their final series.
“Regardless of what our record says, that same old Campbell is in the past and will never come back,’’ Rainbow told the Campbell faithful gathered. “Does everybody understand that?’’
The crowd cheered in approval. And the Spartan fans had plenty to holler about early as Campbell scored the game’s first two touchdowns. After a scoreless first quarter that saw the Spartans missing on couple of open deep-ball fly routes, as well as turning the ball over on a tipped-ball interception in Centennial territory, Campbell got things going in the second.
Taking over near midfield, Campbell moved to the Centennial 26 where it faced a fourth-and-3. From there on a reverse play, junior wide receivers connected for the score as Josh Miller put the pull up and over the defender and Dykari Hickey went up for the grab in the end zone. Sophomore quarterback Austin Green, who had a very active night under center, ran for the two-point conversion to give Campbell an 8-0 lead.
The Spartans were right back at it with their next drive with Green and junior running back Darius Harris providing the majority of the firepower on the 11-play, 80-yard march. Harris, who finished with a game-high 104 yards on 18 carries, chewed off 51 yards on three carries. Green completed two of three passes for 21 yards on the drive, and rushed five times for 23 more, including the final three for the touchdown. The extra point attempt was wide left leaving Campbell up 14-0 with 1:23 left in the half.
A kickoff out of bounds and a late-hit penalty helped Meyer and the Knights get things going offensively and shift the momentum. The Harvard-bound passer hit his favorite receiver on the night, Wade Francis, for a big 35-yard gainer to the Campbell 5. Zietrick Smith scored from there to make it 14-7 with 57 seconds left before half.
That was the score at the break, but the Knights weren’t through scoring as the found the end zone on two of their next three possessions. A 62-yard drive was capped by a 1-yard TD sneak by Meyer to begin the second half. Then after a short punt gave Centennial field possession on Campbell’s side of the 50, Meyer hit Francis with a 27-yarder to the 3. That setup Smith’s 1-yard scoring run to make it 21-14 Centennial with 14:55 left in the game.
The Spartans offense, with its uses of fakes and misdirection from the quarterback in shotgun formation, sputtered to get going in the third quarter. Several Campbell players, including Green, who also started at free safety, were battling leg cramps in the second half. Green shared the quarterbacking duties with fellow sophomore Ricky James, who rushed four times for 11 yards and completed 1 of 4 passes for 5 yards.
But it was Green who sparked what looked for a while was going to be the game-winning drive. His 44-yard run, topped onto with a 15-yard facemask penalty; and a 26-yard completion to Hickey were the two big plays in the 9-play, 82-yard drive. The catch by Hickey put the ball inside the 1, and Green took it up the middle for the score on the next play.
Down one, Rainbow went for the lead and Campbell got it as Green took a high snap and shifted round left end for the two-point conversion and to put the Spartans back in front at 22-21 with 7:16 left in the game.
Green, who finished the night with 95 yards rushing, two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversion runs, added another 72 yards passing on 6 of 10 attempts plus an interception.
Five different players caught passes with Hickey leading with 52 receiving yards. With Harris and Green doing most of the damage, the Spartans piled up 260 yards on the ground and had 363 yards offense on the night.
“We’ve got some skill players and they all made some great plays,’’ Rainbow said afterwards. “We played as a team tonight and they leaned on each other.’’
Rainbow wasn’t shy to try anything Friday as the Spartans went for it on fourth down a couple of times, successfully executed a first quarter fake punt and attempted a couple of onsides kicks. “It’s who we are; we’re going to do whatever it takes to win,’’ he said.
A failed onsides kick gave the Knights the football at midfield. Centennial quickly drove inside the 25-yard line, but Campbell’s Morgan Ford looked to have made the game's biggest defenisve play when he fell on a Centennial fumble at the 32 with 6:11 remaining.
Five running plays from Harris and Green netted two first downs and placed the ball inside the Centennial 35. Time was on Campbell’s side, but following a 4-yard run, Green coughed up the football and the Knights recovered at the 29 with 3:29 left.
“Turnovers are part of the game,’’ said Rainbow, whose team was also penalized nine times for 72 yards. “It is what it is.’’
A first down sack by Tyler Houston provided some initial hope for a Campbell defense that played hard throughout, but just couldn’t come up with the late stop when it needed to. That was partly because of Meyer, who was 3-for-3 for 40 yards on the 14-play, 71-yard game-wining drive, and a Centennial running game that was effective between the tackles in game’s waning moments. The Knights effectively managed the clock late as Meyer’s 1-yard scoring plunge, which was followed by a failed two-point pass, came with just 44 ticks remaining.
Needing a touchdown, Campbell took over on its 45. But on third-and-15, Miller’s desperation heave deep was intercepted and Centennial (1-0, 0-0) had secured comeback victory.
“I believe we’re a really good football team,’’ Rainbow said. “My hat’s off to Centennial. They did what they had to do and they’re a dang good football team. We feel like we can beat anybody and tonight we just came up a little short.’’
Campbell (0-1, 0-0) continues its non-region stretch to open the season with a game at Langston Hughes on Friday, Sept. 2. The following Friday, Sept. 9, Walton comes to Smyrna before the Spartans begin Region 4-AAAAA play at McEachern on Sept. 16.