University Christian held off Maclay Friday night on their home turf in a 35-28 win to move onto next Friday’s Class 2A state semifinals in Lakeland against Victory Christian Academy.
The Class 2A-1 regional semifinal began with the Marauders (9-3) striking within minutes of the first quarter.
The Marauders began their offensive attack with a 73-yard completion from quarterback Brecht Heuchan to junior WR Kennan Milford on the second play of their drive, resulting in a touchdown.
With seven minutes left in the first quarter, junior Jamari Fudge answered for University Christian (11-1) with an 8-yard rushing touchdown to tie up the game.
At the 4:06 mark, Maclay freshman Rhyder Poppell rushed for a 6-yard touchdown to give the Marauders the lead. The offensive back-and-forth ensued as University Christian responded with the same play-style score, a 6-yard rushing touchdown made by freshman quarterback Desirrio Riles with 24 seconds left on the clock. The first quarter ended in a tie at 14-14.
The start of the second quarter began with an interception with11:52 on the clock, by senior DB Octavis Clayton for the Christians, resulting in ball placement on Maclay’s own 30-yard line to begin their first drive.
It took almost no time for the Christians to command the lead, with Riles completing a 40-yard pass to senior RB Marques Moulds with 9:09 left on the clock.
A second interception by the Christians at 5:44 turned the Marauder’s luck around on a drive that many assumed would lead to another tie to end the second quarter. After back-to-back incompletions by Heuchan, freshman Orel Gray intercepted a pass on Maclay’s own 1-yard line.
With 1:10 left until the half, Riles connected on a 35-yard touchdown to sophomore TE Jerome Manning to increase the Christians’ lead to 28-14.
Penalties by the Marauders cost them big plays in the first half that resulted in better play-making ability for UC.
The run-heavy Christians ran for over 260 yards in the game, despite star running back Max McClendon’s absence by injury. McClendon leads the team with 20 rushing touchdowns on the season and 1,476 yards on the ground.
At 6:13 during the fourth quarter, the Christians’ would score their final touchdown of the game with a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Riles to stretch the lead to 35-14 after the extra point is landed by freshman Carson Hancock.
“We just challenged our offense and I knew that we could run the ball pretty well (on the Marauders) so we did that and sucked them in,” said University Christian head coach David Penland III.
The Christians’ defense held Maclay with two big sacks late in the fourth quarter, but that wasn’t enough to stop the Marauder’s offensive drive with back-to-back completions. With 2:39 left in the match-up, Heuchan scored on a short run.
Maclay recovered a fumble by Riles shortly after, and Heuchan connected with Milford on a 35-yard touchdown. With 2:18 left in the game, it seemed like the Marauders might have a shot to make a comeback on the road.
With less than two minutes to go, time ran out for Maclay, who was looking to make their first ever trip to the state semifinals in the school’s history.
The Christians ran out the clock to end the game at 35-28, to reenter the state semifinals for the first time since 2017.
“We’re banged up. We have to get healthy, and that’s the biggest thing. I get three of my guys back next week so that’s going to help out a lot,” said Penland.
Relying on young players to perform in positions outside of their typical game plan was a key for the Christians win. “Practicing with these younger guys and getting them some reps in practice paid off,” he said.
“I challenge them before the game to have each other’s back, lock arms and play as a family, one heartbeat; and they all bought in and they’ve done a good job all year long,” said Penland.