For the third consecutive week to start the season, much was at stake for the Aberdeen Bobcats.
After opening the season with a Myrtle Street Rivalry win followed by a flat performance in a highly-touted local matchup against Montesano, Aberdeen debuted its much-anticipated new turf field in a home-opener against league foe Centralia on Friday.
Add injuries and penalty troubles into the mix and it was apparant the pressure was mounting against the Bobcats.
But key performances by players stepping into larger roles and a defense that played a more physical brand of football led to a 25-6 Aberdeen victory, christening the freshly-improved Stewart Field with a win.
Aberdeen (2-1 overall, 1-0 2A Evergreen) looked to be headed toward an easy blowout victory in the early going, cashing in on its first possession when senior running back Jeremy Sawyer scored on a 2-yard touchdown plunge.
A turnover-prone Centralia team would cough up a fumble on the ensuing possession, giving Aberdeen the ball at the Tigers 31-yard line.
Aberdeen advanced the ball to the Tigers 18 after a pitch-and-catch from junior quarterback Grady Springer to senior running back Trey Anderson followed by a short run from Sawyer.
Looking as though it was just a matter of time before Aberdeen charged in for another touchdown, laundry began to drop on the field, often against the Bobcats.
A holding penalty followed by a false start flag pushed the Bobcats back to the 34. Three incompletions later and the Bobcats’ promising scoring opportunity was squandered after turning the ball over on downs.
In the second quarter, Sawyer would recover another Centralia (0-3, 0-1) fumble, giving the Bobcats prime field position at the Tigers 48-yard line.
The Bobcats would convert the giveaway into points, scoring on the fifth play of the drive when junior receiver Aidan Watkins took a hand-off through the right side of the defense and found daylight for a 32 yards touchdown run, giving Aberdeen a 13-0 lead with just under eight minutes left in the first half.
Then the bad blood between these two league rivals began to boil, and more flags started hitting the ground.
With the Bobcats driving deep into Centralia territory, Aberdeen was penalized for a 15-yard facemask and a personal-foul penalty on a 3rd-and-6 from the 24, pushing the Bobcats back to the 43 yard-line and all but killing another golden scoring opportunity.
In all, Aberdeen committed nine penalties for 90 yards in the first half, including a penalty that wiped out what would have been a 48-yard touchdown run Anderson in the second quarter. Two of the first-half penalties were personal fouls, one a controversial call that led to the ejection of Sawyer on a play where Centralia quarterback Landon Jenkins was knocked out of the game late in the first half.
Sawyer, who was not involved in the play on Jenkins, was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which led to a game ejection and the possibility of missing next week’s contest at Prosser. Aberdeen officials plan to appeal the call, which will involve reviewing video footage. A decision on the appeal is expected to be heard on Monday.
But the damage was done as Aberdeen entered the half only up 13-0 as the penalties thwarted drives and arguably cost the Bobcats 14-plus points on the scoreboard.
It was an issue Aberdeen head coach Todd Bridge addressed to his players at halftime.
“There are a couple of teams in our league that run their mouths and the next thing you know, we retaliate. And that’s an issue of pride, like ‘Oh, I can out talk you,’ but it’s a game of football. It’s not a speech and debate class,” said Bridge, adding that he did more than challenge his team at the half. “I threatened them that Monday’s practice is going to be really sucky if they don’t grow up. They needed to mature and grow up. Don’t use your mouth, use your pads. Shut them up with your pads and that’s what they did.”
Aberdeen’s players took the coaching staff’s warning — and threats — to heart.
“Mental errors. Just mental errors, that’s all it is,” Watkins said of Aberdeen’s first-half penalty problems. “The Aberdeen coaches told us that all the penalties we had were just drive-killers.”
The Bobcats played a much more disciplined brand of football while retaining the hard-hitting aggression — especially on the defensive side of the ball — in the second half.
After the Aberdeen defense recovered its third Centralia fumble on the evening, Watkins caught a swing pass from Springer and scampered 27 yards to the end zone for a 19-0 lead late in the third quarter.
The Bobcats put the icing on the cake in the fourth when Springer was helped by the rest of the offense in scoring on a 12-yard run that looked reminiscent of a rugby scrum, staking Aberdeen to a 25-0 lead with just under five minutes remaining in the game.
Centralia would tack on a late touchdown on a single drive that accounted for a good portion of its 171 yards of total offense.
In a classy move, Aberdeen coaches called timeout with just a few seconds left in the game to allow Goings, who was wearing a large knee brace, to take the final snap of the game, taking a knee to run out the clock.
Watkins addressed what the Bobcats — which had four penalties for 55 yards in the second half — did differently over the final two quarters of the game.
“We just calmed down,” he said. “Coach told us to calm down and not retaliate because they were trying to get in our heads and in the beginning, we were letting them.”
Aberdeen rushed for 277 yards to just 77 for Centralia and Springer passed for 83 yards.
The Bobcats defense held pass-happy Centralia to 94 yards through the air.
Aberdeen outgained Centralia by a total of 360-171.
With five starters sidelined, Watkins said the entire team rose to the occasion.
“It wasn’t just me, I think everyone stepped up, the whole team,” he said. “I just think my number was called, everyone did a good job and made a play after.”
“We tackled very effectively, but the physicality of how we played football was pretty impressive tonight,” Bridge said. “We just pounded Centralia into the ground. Those guys were limping off. … That’s what weight room does for you. … They are starting to become a more physically dominating person and that obviously rolls right on to the football field and the other team just can’t take it.”
Despite the adversity, Watkins said he was more than happy to get a home-opening win against a league rival that has had some testy games with Aberdeen the past few seasons.
“It was a great win. I loved every minute of it,” he said. “I love Friday nights.”