By Tony Tsoukalas / Sports Writer
The Meridian Star
In a season defined by the pursuit of perfection, Russell Christian Academy was anything but perfect in Friday’s championship game against Calhoun Academy. The Warriors uncharacteristically turned the ball over three times and let rival Cougars stay in the game.
However, with the game and their 13-0 perfect season on the line, the Warriors fought through adversity and held on to beat Calhoun 29-28 to secure the first state championship in school history.
Leading Calhoun 29-28 with less than 40 seconds on the clock, Warrior players saw their season just 6 yards away from coming to a disappointing end.
On third-and-goal from the 6-yard line, the Cougars were in position to avenge their Oct. 17 loss to the Warriors and hand Russell Christian its first loss of the season. Calhoun had already pounded the ball 59 yards on 11 plays earlier in the drive, wearing out both the clock and the Warrior defense.
With a tired defense around him, Russell Christian linebacker Jesse Barksdale knew it was his time to make a play. As Cougar quarterback Hunter Harmon rolled to the left, Barksdale decided to blitz. The hard-hitting defender reached the quarterback, stripping at the ball and sending it free to the turf.
“It wasn’t really a called blitz, but I felt like they had been going all day with the same calls, and I felt like I needed to blitz,” Barksdale said. “I ended up making the play and helping my teammates.”
With the ball lying on the ground, defensive lineman Michael Harwell quickly pounced for the recovery, holding on for dear life and preserving the win for the Warriors.
“I saw the ball and I just grabbed it,” Harwell said. “I didn’t want to let it go. I just laid there for like what seemed like 10 minutes.”
Harwell played the majority of the game both ways for the Warriors, filling in at center after Baylie Etheridge left the game with a thumb injury.
“I had to step up and play iron man,” Harwell said. “I had to do it, I had to be the one to do that. It just goes back to the summer. We worked so hard for this day, and I wasn’t going to let it slip away.”
On offense, running back Arik Washington carried the Warriors, rushing the ball 19 times for 150 yards and two touchdowns. The star running back finished the season with 113 carries for 1,327 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season.
“We worked all summer and all year for this,” Washington said. “It is so exciting that we got an opportunity to do this and bring home a championship.
“Today it was really the line. They blocked great and gave me a good opportunity to run.”
Wide receiver Ashton Temple also played a huge part in the victory for the Warriors. The junior made the most of his two receptions on the night, totaling 93 yards and scoring two touchdowns, including one from 75 yards out.
Barksdale finished the game with 15 tackles and was one of three Warrior defenders with double-digit tackles on the day, Jacob Stephens (14 tackles) and John Epps (12 tackles) were the others.
“I feel like that was probably our worst game all year, but we still fought through it,” head coach Nate Ballard said. “The boys played hard to fight through it, and it just feels great to win.”