By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal
NEW ALBANY – The New Albany defense bends but doesn’t break.
With less than three minutes remaining of a MHSAA Class 4A first-round playoff game against Houston, Riley Alef made a diving interception at his opponent’s 40-yard line to preserve a 21-17 victory for the fifth-ranked Bulldogs at Kitchens Field.
The Bulldogs (9-3), who trailed 17-14 in the final four minutes, will travel to Cleveland next week.
Friday night’s victory was New Albany’s seventh by 14 points or less this season. Houston, meanwhile, ended its season at 6-6.
“When we need a play, we find somebody out there willing to step up and make it,” said Bulldogs coach Ron Price.
Speaking of playmakers, Josh Creekmore scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner.
Creekmore had 12 carries for 189 yards and caught three passes for 22 more.
Creekmore set up the game’s first score with an impressive 85-yard run within the first two minutes of the second period. On the very next play, Spencer Day swung the ball out to him for a 12-yard TD reception.
The instant offense didn’t end there. On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Creekmore raced 70 yards to give his team a first-and-goal. On the following down, he dashed into the end zone from three yards out to expand the Bulldogs’ lead to 14-6.
However, Kantrell Murry and Sharone Wright were nearly as impressive, as the Hilltoppers rattled off 10 consecutive points to take a 17-14 lead.
The Hilltoppers were able to consistently move the ball against the Bulldogs, as Murry tallied 116 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries and Wright had 101 yards on 23 attempts.
Wright provided the equalizer with his arm, a 21-yard touchdown pass to Austin Blansett with 8:10 remaining in the third.
Wright and Murry would lead their team to the go-ahead score, a 22-yard field goal by Emmitt Dendy with 5:23 remaining in the contest.
But a 19-yard scoring run by Creekmore with 3:30 to go spoiled that.
“They were a very physical football team, and they played fast,” Price said of the Hilltoppers.
In the end, Price’s defense proved to be the difference, accounting for three turnovers and a blocked field goal.
One of those turnovers came on their own 2-yard line, as the Hilltoppers threatened to score at the beginning of the second quarter.
Penetration from the backside led to the football being knocked loose from a Hilltoppers player, who didn’t see it coming, said Hilltoppers coach Donny Rogers.