BRADEN RIVER — Prior to this season, McKenzie Hathaway’s time on the field was spent dropping running backs for losses.
But that all changed this summer when Lakewood Ranch traveled to Appalachian State for a team camp. There, the former Mustangs linebacker filled in at running back. Before long, the senior had proven he could handle the transition.
And on Sept. 2, Hathaway showed just how explosive he could be. In front of a packed Pirate Stadium, Hathaway racked up 133 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns, helping lead the visiting Mustangs to a 28-18 victory over rival Braden River in the season opener for both teams.
“Hathaway’s a tough kid,” Lakewood coach Shawn Trent said. “That’s why we moved him there. He started at outside linebacker all last year, and we knew we needed more than one running back. Andre (Christiano) did a fantastic job when he was in there, too, but McKenzie just has a little bit more weight to him, so he brings a little bit more with him and behind those (strong) guys we’ve got up front, it’s hard to stop him for four quarters.”
Heading into its rivalry game at Braden River, the Mustangs, who won last year’s game 21-7 and ended the Pirates streak of three straight victories over the Mustangs, had spent the past year hearing how they got lucky last year.
Looking to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke, Lakewood relied on its strength — a massive offensive line — and a simple game plan to try and wear down its East County rivals.
The recipe proved effective. Behind their powerful offensive line, which eventually wore down the Pirates defense, the Mustangs amassed 224 yards on 44 carries.
“I think the biggest thing was our kids listening to their kids talk that it was a fluke all year,” Trent said. “So, to be able to come back and do it twice in a row and prove it wasn’t a fluke, I think, makes a big difference.”
Christiano added 61 yards, senior running back Sam Harper and senior quarterback Jeren Kowalewski both added 15 yards and senior tight end Greg Funk had one carry for five yards.
“They’re big (guys) and they worked hard in the weight room,” Trent said. “They’re big strong kids and in games like this that’s what it comes down to late in the third and fourth quarter when you have to get that first down. It worked out well tonight.
“I don’t know too many coaches, if you had those guys up on the offensive line, that you wouldn’t be running the ball,” Trent said. “I’m really proud of the offensive line and McKenzie, Andre and even (Jeren) Kowalewski. When he had to make the throws, he made the throws, and that’s what we have to be able to do. That’s pretty much the game plan for all season.”
Lakewood marched 80 yards down the field on its opening possession, and took an early 7-0 lead on Hathaway’s 3-yard run.
Braden River responded when quarterback Steven Ross connected with Troy Gatling in the back of the end zone for a 26-yard score, cutting Lakewood’s lead to 7-6.
Lakewood extended its lead when Hathaway punched the ball in from three yards out.
After recovering an onside kick on its ensuing possession, Braden River cut Lakewood’s lead to 14-12 when offensive lineman Trevon Young recovered running back Demond Bradley’s fumble and rumbled his way 17 yards for the score.
Kowalewski scored from three yards out to give Lakewood a 21-12 lead.
Braden River opened the third quarter with a scoring drive of its own when Ross threw the ball back to wide receiver Ryan Fischer, who then connected with Justin Ross in the corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown.
Kowalewski scored the Mustangs’ final touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
The Pirates tried to respond late in the game, but a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions by Lakewood’s Luke Sears and Brandon King derailed Braden River’s attempt at a comeback.
“Hats of to them; they played a great game,” Braden River coach Don Purvis said. “They were physical. They did a good job of pushing us around a little bit, and they didn’t make very many mistakes that hurt them, and we did.
“That might be because this is a rivalry and all of the emotions that go along with it,” Purvis said. “I have a lot of confidence in our young men (though) that they’re going to settle down, play hard and they’ll overcome it.”
Braden River will look to rebound from last Friday’s loss as the Pirates travel to North Port to take on the Bobcats in non-district action Sept. 9.
Meanwhile, the Mustangs will return home to host Southeast in another non-district contest. Last season, Lakewood fell to the Seminoles 28-0. Kickoff for both games is set for 7:30 p.m.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].
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