Looking back on it, Unity Christian head coach Mark Ackerman had a moment where he realized his team’s game Friday night symbolized their struggles in the last two seasons.
Never backing down from its opponent, Unity Christian recovered from some early troubles and went toe-to-toe with Central Christian in the first round of the GICAA eight-man state playoffs but fell just short of the victory, losing 52-48.
The loss brings an end to a comeback season for the Lions, who went from going winless a year ago to finding the right mix of hard work and determination to finish 8-2 this year.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Ackerman said. “Of course we’ve talked about the differences from last year to this year, but really this game was a bit of a microcosm of that. The other team was incredibly physical, but our kids just kept fighting back.”
Unity senior wideout Janson Slaughter had 168 yards and three touchdowns on 16 catches, while quarterback Drew King, a freshman, threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 28 yards and a touchdown.
Collin Mathis had 36 yards rushing and a touchdown, Sam Mumpower had a 54-yard touchdown catch and Eli Wells ran back a 75-yard kickoff return near the end of the first quarter that put the Lions up 14-12 early.
“Every coach from pee wee on up says don’t leave anything out there, just go all out,” Ackerman said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of football games through the years, and I really feel that our kids played about as well as we could have played tonight.”
Down 36-28 at halftime, Unity matched Central Christian touchdown for touchdown in the third quarter, with a missed two-point conversion pass as the only difference.
The Crusaders were up 52-42 when a penalty and back-to-back tackles in the backfield for the Lions’ Zander Beaty forced Central Christian to punt. Eli Wells made a solid return for Unity to give them a short field at the Crusaders’ 23.
King then hit Slaughter for a 13-yard strike in the end zone to get within four of the lead two minutes into the fourth quarter. King was tackled short of the goal line on the conversion, but Unity was not about to give up.
The Lions’ defense stood strong on the ensuing drive and forced Central Christian to turn the ball over on downs 2 yards from the end zone. Taking back over on offense after a Unity three-and-out, the Crusaders moved the ball to the Lions’ 20 before a fumble in the backfield was recovered by Unity’s Bayley Mohler
With 2:24 left to play, Unity began moving down the field and go to Central’s 36 when Slaughter was caught up in traffic on a pass from King and unable to come up with the catch. The ball appeared to hit the ground but a Central player took possession of the ball before backing out of bounds.
Officials ruled it an interception, putting the Crusaders back on offense with 1:09 left to take a couple of knees and end the game.