Hunting for a Homecoming victory, the Wewahitchka Gators marched on to the gridiron looking to extend their winning streak to four games against the Jay Royals in a conference showdown Friday evening.
In a matchup dominated by stellar rushing efforts, balanced play by the Jay Royals (6-3) and a key goal line stand in the final moments of the first half shifted the tide just enough to stifle the Wewahitchka Gators (4-5) and hand them their first loss in the last five games.
Coming off a narrow six-point win last week against the Florida A&M University Developmental Research School, the Gators had their eyes focused on their second home win of the season against a Jay squad that has lost three of their last four contests after beginning the season 4-0.
With Wewa having a razor-thin edge this season over Jay in average PPG scoring at 21.3-21.1 and just one more point scored on the season than the Royals at 170-169, the stage was set for defense to potentially serve as the deciding factor in the Homecoming battle.
Following a pregame Homecoming coronation that crowned seniors Zay McDaniel and Madison Wood king and queen, fans packing the bleachers on both sides of the field, and those gathering along the fence line, saw Wewa begin the night on the offensive side of the ball but quickly cede possession to Jay after a quick four-and-out.
A screen pass to Tucker Nowling and subsequent 15-yard horse collar penalty on the Gators would push the Royals into Wewa territory, followed by a run off the left edge by Brock Stout put his team just outside the red zone.
Continuing to utilize a run-heavy attack, the Royals found themselves facing a crucial third-down situation thanks to the formidable play of the Wewa defensive line.
However, a crisp slant route for a receiving TD by Jay wide receiver Brady Godwin put the first score of the game on the board and gave the Royals a 7-0 lead with 4:02 remaining in the first quarter.
Pushing back quickly, the Gators wasted no time in turning their offensive versatility into points of their own.
Implementing a mix of running and passing plays, a huge gain on a swing pass to sophomore wide receiver Bailey Cox laid the groundwork for senior Zay McDaniel to put his shiftiness on display with a rushing TD off the left tackle to eventually put the Gators ahead 8-7.
In prizefight fashion, both teams threw their best offensive punches throughout the first two quarters of action, with Jay tacking on touchdowns by junior Grayson Shehan and senior Brock Stout, while McDaniel put on a rushing exhibition with 186 first-half yards on the ground for the Gators.
With less than 10 seconds left in the half and Jay winning 22-16, Wewa found themselves with a golden goal line opportunity to take the lead heading into the locker room after a roughing the kicker penalty on the Royals kept the Gators drive alive.
Getting in one final play before the halftime whistle, the Gators were stuffed just inches short of the end zone after a run up the middle, preventing a last-second Wewa touchdown and holding the score at 22-16 in Jay’s favor.
Parlaying their pivotal defensive stand at the end of the second quarter into offensive momentum, Jay quickly added to their lead heading into the final 24 minutes of action.
A 13-yard rushing TD by Shehan with six minutes remaining in the third quarter and a 6-yard rushing TD by Stout with five minutes remaining in the contest swelled the Royals advantage to 35-16.
Yet, fighting until the end, a third rushing touchdown by McDaniel with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter cut into the Jay lead and ultimately narrowed the gap on the scoreboard to its final resting point of 35-22 as time expired, cementing the Royals’ victory.
McDaniel shined on the night for the Gators, finishing the contest with 229 total rushing yards.
Racking up yardage on the ground for the Royals were Stout (148 yards on 28 carries) and quarterback Hayden Morris (61 yards on 8 carries).
On Nov. 3, Wewahitchka finishes off the season on the road in a matchup against Franklin County at 7 p.m., while Jay returns home to square off against Blacksher at 7 p.m.