LACEY — Special teams are special, until it happens for the opposition.
In a season where small breakdowns have cost the Grays Harbor Bearcats points and wins, Saturday’s Western Washington Football Alliance Division III finale came down to special teams.
The Thurston County Mayhem scored three special teams touchdowns — one on a punt return, one on a kickoff return and one on a muffed punt — to provide just enough points to hold off a furious late Bearcat rally for a 26-24 win at South Sound Stadium in Lacey.
For Grays Harbor, the loss ends its season at 3-5. A win over the Mayhem would have given it a divisional postseason berth and extended the season one more week.
“Special teams killed us — the punt, the kickoff and the muffed punt,” Grays Harbor co-owner and offensive/defensive lineman Don Orton said. “The little things like that hurt. If we were able to get our offensive points earlier in the game, it would have been a different game. We had opportunities, just didn’t take advantage of them and it was a bit of too little, too late. It is just a microcosm of the season.”
Grays Harbor’s offense dominated the first quarter, but trailed 13-8. The Mayhem’s Anthony Chaney took Bryan Hooper’s punt kick and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead three-plus minutes into the game.
Safety Jerry Mansuco’s interception of Mayhem quarterback Mike Beasley deep in Mayhem territory set up the Bearcats’ first touchdown. One play after the pick, Grays Harbor quarterback Eric Dayton hit Daniel Hargrove for a 17-yard touchdown pass play. Hargrove injured his ankle on the play and didn’t return.
After Dayton hit Kareem Johnson on the 2-point conversion, the Bearcats led 8-7 with 3:24 left in the quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, Chaney took the kick 86 yards for a touchdown and a 13-8 Mayhem lead.
Dayton found success with short passes and timing routes that threw the Mayhem’s secondary off. However, once the Bearcats got inside the 20-yard line, the Mayhem’s defense tightened and forced turnovers to end drives. Dayton finished with 208 yards passing on 17-for-41 attempts, three touchdowns and four interceptions.
In all honesty, one of the interceptions was negated when a Mayhem player picked off the pass, then promptly fumbled it back to the Bearcats early in the contest. Johnson caught six of Dayton’s passes for 109 yards and one score.
Grays Harbor’s defense, which mostly comprised of everyone on offense with a few substitutes thrown in (18 Bearcats overall), shut down Thurston County to keep the game tight. A scoreless second quarter was highlighted by a recovered fumble and a snuffed out fake punt to end the first half at 13-8 Mayhem.
After halftime, the Bearcats’ defense picked up where it left off with a 3-and-out on the Mayhem. However, on the ensuing punt, the kick was allegedly touched by a Grays Harbor player and then returned for a touchdown for a 20-8 lead. After the game officials talked it over and nearly the entire Grays Harbor roster giving its point-of-view, the play stood.
The next two drives for each of the teams ended in turnovers — a lost fumble and an interception for the Bearcats and an interception and a blocked field goal — to end the third quarter.
Thurston County scored its only non-special teams touchdown early in the fourth quarter on a quick three-play, 56-yard drive. A 37-yard pass from Beasley to Logan McDonnell flipped the field for the Mayhem. Two plays later, Beasley hit Nic Gove on a 21-yard touchdown pass play and a 26-8 lead with 11:18 remaining.
Grays Harbor found its longest drive of the contest with 9:11 left to play, a 12-play, 83-yard march that Dayton small-passed his way down the field with big runs from Vincent McCrory. Dayton hit 4-for-7 for 54 yards on the drive, with McCrory running for 24 yards before Dayton hit McCrory on a 9-yard touchdown pass play with 3:25 left. Dayton throw a 2-point conversion at 26-16,
Dayton threw a 2-point conversion at 26-16, then the Bearcats set up for an onside kick. The first attempt was successful, but officials ruled the Bearcats touched the ball before the prerequisite 10 yards. But, they were giving a chance to kick it again on a penalty. This time, it was successful with Johnson recovering the ball at the Bearcats’ 37-yard line.
Grays Harbor lost the ball on downs at the Mayhem’s 39-yard line, but then forced a fake punt from the hosts who tried to run out the clock. With 26 seconds left on the Mayhem 20-yard line, Dayton hit Johnson for a 20-yard touchdown fade pass into the far right corner. McCrory ran in the 2-point conversion at 26-24 with 20 seconds left.