By: Chris Manning | | October 14, 2022 | Photo courtesy Chris Manning


CANTON — Athens didn’t come away with a win, but the Wildcats did show that, for three quarters, they could play with a state-ranked team during their 21-0 loss to Canton on Friday.

The Warriors blitzed the Wildcats for three touchdowns on their first three drives, but Athens’ defense stiffened, keeping Canton out of the end zone from that point on.

Offensively, Athens had its moments — including a 25-yard Mason Lister to Xavier Watson reception — and their opportunities — twice inside the Canton red zone in the second quarter, but weren’t able to capitalize on them for points.

“It’s tough playing these guys, they’re really, really good,” said Athens coach Jack Young. “I think we might have played a little like deer in the headlights in the first quarter. And then we woke up, and our defense played really phenomenal.”

The Wildcats kept Canton out of the end zone on its final seven drives of the night, though the Warriors did run for 318 yards.

“I’m proud of our guys’ fight, but there’s no moral victories here,” said Young. “I’m just glad we showed up and fought, and this was as physical of a second half of football as I’ve seen in a long time. If we can take the positives, and learn from the negatives, we will be better next week.”

In the second half, Athens held Canton to 116 yards of total offense, and sent them backwards on six plays, including three straight at one point.

“I think we’re better than what we believe we are,” Young said, noting his team started to believe in that second-quarter turnaround.

Offensively, though, they only produced two first downs outside the second quarter — one in the entire second half — and he knows they have to get better at protecting Lister in the backfield.

“We have to handle that pressure better,” said Young.

The Wildcats finished with just 80 yards of total offense, 16 of which came on the ground. Lister was 15-for-21 for 64 yards, and his top two targets were Luke Horton (seven catches, 19 yards) and Xavier Watson (two catches, 36 yards).

Caleb Nichols had 23 yards rushing on 13 carries, while Kolsen Keathley finished with 17 yards on three touches.

Canton saw two backs go over 100 yards -—Riley Parker (19 carries, 152 yards, one touchdown) and Weston Bellows (10 carries, 112 yards, one touchdown), while Holden Ward ran for 33 yards on eight carries as he took the lion’s share of snaps at QB.

Canton attempted just five passes, going 3-for-5, with Michael Davis’ 38-yard completion to Hudson Ward the highlight of the night.

Penalties also hurt the Warriors, who were flagged 11 times for 80 yards.

Canton took the opening kick-off and marched down the field, going 65 yards on seven plays — all runs — to paydirt. Parker’s 2-yard punch got them in the end zone, but the key play was a 30-yard run from Holden Ward, followed by a 17-yard run from Parker to get them inside the Athens 25-yard line.

Bailey Ferguson added the point after to make it 7-0 just 2:30 into the contest.

Athens’ first possession ended in a 3-and-out, with Canton taking over at their own 37-yard line. This time it was just three plays to paydirt, as Bellows ran untouched up the middle 59 yards to the end zone.

Ferguson’s kick was good, and Canton led 14-0 with 6:49 on left in the first quarter.

After another Athens punt, Canton took over at its own 38-yard line. The Warriors went into their bag of tricks, pulling out a halfback pass from Davis to Hudson Ward for 38 yards down to the Athens 24-yard line.

From there, they used six runs to get into the end zone, with Allen sneaking it in from one yard out on 4th-and-goal for their third touchdown of the quarter. Ferguson’s kick was good, and it was 21-0 with 1:27 left to play in the first.

Athens’ offense found some life in the ensuing drive, getting down to the Canton 26-yard line when Lister hit Watson for the 25-yard hook up.

However, the drive would stall, and Canton would force Athens to turn it over on downs, taking over at its 19-yard line.

This time, though, it was the Wildcats making something happen on defense, recovering a fumble on the initial play of the drive to take over at the Canton 27-yard line.

A roughing-the-passer call on fourth down would put the Wildcats inside the Canton 15-yard line. However, a Hayden Ward sack on second down pushed them back to the 20.

On fourth down, Lister got Horton 1-on-1 in the end zone, and for a moment Horton had the ball in his hands, but Allen reached up through and punched it away for another defensive stop.

Both teams then ended the half with empty drives.

It was a defensive struggle in the second half — Canton had just 116 yards of total offense, Athens had 25.

Eventually, the Warriors used a big dose of Parker to run out the clock, as he finished with 105 yards rushing on 12 carries in final two quarters.

Athens (5-3) will host Central Columbia next week as they try to catch Montoursville in the District IV standings to have a home game in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs.

“We’re too good to be shutout, even against a really good team like Canton,” Young said. “We just got to be better.”