This was the test Whale Branch needed to ace -- for the Warriors' psyches, and to prove this season was different.
It was this point during the inaugural season the Warriors' flaws were exposed. Poor tackling and youthful mistakes led to a slump during region play.
But this time, Whale Branch delivered an early message -- that it isn't the same team, that its revamped offense, talented newcomers and load of returning starters could carry the Warriors to a special season. The Warriors overcame a late push Friday from Hardeeville and defeated the Hurricanes 18-16 on the road to open Region 5-A play with a victory.
With 24 seconds remaining, Whale Branch receiver Frank Washington hauled in the go-ahead touchdown pass from newcomer quarterback Brandon Morton.
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Whale Branch remained undefeated, improving to 4-0 in its second season and 1-0 in region play.
"Everybody's back," Whale Branch coach Rob D'Amato said. "We're more mature. We know football better."
The Hurricanes' loss -- their fourth straight to start the season -- spoiled the homecoming of running back Phillip Harris, whose saga as a transfer to Hilton Head High and back gave him a late jump on Hardeeville's season. Playing in front of his home fans for the first time, Harris scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:22 remaining, keeping the ball on an option and cutting into the end zone.
A huge kickoff return, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a 55-yard pass from Morton to Andre Watson positioned the Warriors on their winning drive. Morton and the Warriors faced fourth-and-10 from their own territory when he rolled right and found Watson open behind the defense.
Washington said he and his teammates were comfortable running the two-minute drill, that the Warriors work on those game-type situations often in practice. Washington said the team gets along, and they committed during the offseason to play with better effort.
"We've really got the momentum now," Washington said.
Warriors running back Josh Fields scored on a toss sweep for the only points during a penalty-riddled first half. Two interceptions slowed Whale Branch. And the teams combined for 12 penalties for 85 yards during the first two quarters, with most of the yellow directed at the Hurricanes.
Hardeeville failed to convert two scoring opportunities late in the first half. Twice during the final three minutes of the second quarter, the Hurricanes had first-and-goal inside the 5. Both times, Hardeeville turned the ball over on downs outside the 15-yard line.
The Hurricanes were penalized 16 times for 125 yards.