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Photo Credit: KEN RUINARD - GREENVILLE NEWS

By Johnny Falduto of Friday Night Final - only on The ROAR

Pendleton (4-1) outlasted Palmetto High School (1-4) in an emotional 27-21 overtime victory at Cunningham Stadium on Friday night.

The story of this one began before the opening kickoff, when a long moment of silence was held to honor Kierra Johnson, a Palmetto freshman who passed away earlier last week. Fans from both teams came to the game dressed in purple, Johnson’s favorite color, and both Pendleton and Palmetto players donned patches with her volleyball and basketball jersey number 24 on their helmets. At halftime, a fundraiser was held to help the family with expenses.

“It’s amazing to be at a place like Pendleton, where you know it’s not only about football,” said Bulldogs quarterback Luke Gray. “I think coach Howell and the coaching staff do a great job of showing that, and to me, it’s wonderful to know that our team has coaches and players who understand that some things are bigger than the game itself.”

With heavy hearts, Palmetto opened the game’s scoring in a hurry. A Hayden Burton 40-yard opening kickoff return followed by a Zach Edwards 45-yard run would help set up a 6-yard pass from junior quarterback Brooks Janssen to KJ Mansel, giving the Mustangs a 7-0 advantage just over a minute into the first quarter.

With just over four minutes remaining in the opening quarter, Bulldogs quarterback Luke Gray’s pass was tipped around by both his receiver and Palmetto defensive back Tanner Hines before Hines hauled in the interception; driving down the field once more, a 4-yard rush for sophomore Cooper Robinson would extend the Palmetto lead to 14-0 as the opening period came to an end.

Luke Gray acknowledged the early deficit: “Being down 14-0 early, it’s tough to not put your head down. But our team knows what we are capable of, so it didn’t bother us. It was still 0-0 to us.” His team remained without much offense until midway through the second quarter when he flipped a quick pop-pass to sophomore standout Abijah Webb, who broke several tackles en route to a 74-yard score. A blocked extra point kept the Mustangs’ lead at 14-6.

Minutes later after a strong defensive stand, Ja’quan Dawson finished off one of Pendleton’s most efficient drives of the season with a 5-yard touchdown run, bringing the Bulldogs to within 1 at the half. “We knew we had to get some points up on the board, especially since we got the ball after halftime,” said Gray, who went 5-5 for 54 passing yards and added 22 of his own rushing yards on the drive. “I felt the play calling was great and we were just able to click. I was in a good rhythm and I think scoring there was huge for us.”

The only score of the third quarter came when the Mustangs lined up in wildcat formation and Cooper Robinson found sophomore Jaylen Putnam for a 68-yard touchdown, extending the Palmetto lead to 21-13 going into the fourth.

A Palmetto missed field goal midway through the final quarter gave the Bulldogs one last chance to drive down the field and tie it up, which they did in just under two minutes: with 3:54 remaining, Ja’quan Dawson found the end zone for the second time, and a Luke Gray strike to Abijah Webb for the 2-point conversation would knot the game at 21 apiece at the end of regulation. “I just did what I was taught to do and what we work on everyday,” said Dawson of his two critical touchdowns, “Luke trusted in me to get me the ball and my linemen up front did what needed to be done to help me get there.”

Palmetto secured the first possession of the overtime period, but Pendleton freshman Dax Allen came up with a huge interception to stop them short of the goal line and set up a Luke Gray 2-yard walk-off touchdown, giving Pendleton their first win against Palmetto since 2011. 

The win comes as Pendleton prepares to enter into region play next week at West-Oak (3-2), leaving Dawson feeling good about where the team stands: “I’m definitely feeling good coming into the region this year. I feel like we’re going to do what has to be done next week and we’re going to continue to work hard at practice. We have some harder competition in the region closer to the end, but if my team and I go out there and be the more physical team, we can pull some wins out.”

Following the conclusion of the game, Pendleton and Palmetto players and students were seen at midfield embracing and showing support for one another in light of the Palmetto community’s recent tragedy. Pendleton Football’s Twitter page shared images of the moment with a caption that read:

“Tonight was about so much more than football. Two communities, Palmetto & Pendleton, should be proud of the way they represented themselves tonight. In difficult times, in grief and sadness, it is so good to see people come together and rally for the common good.”

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Tune in to our Tri-County Tech High School Football Game of the Week, Friday nights at 7pm.