MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Huntingdon football coach Mike Turk braced for the celebratory shower on the sideline during the final seconds of Saturday's 38-14 win over Maryville College.
As senior Heath McCray doused Turk with a cooler of Powerade, the celebration began for Huntingdon. For the first time in the 13-year history of Huntingdon football, the Hawks are conference champions.
"We've had some really big games in the history of our program, but we've never had a conference championship," Turk said. "The fact that our guys knew what was on the line and what was at stake, to play as well as we did today says a lot about the character of the guys on this team.
"This is pretty awesome. So much goes into it and we've come so close before, it's nice to finally accomplish this goal. For the players and the coaches, to have that sense of accomplishing a goal you've set for yourself is pretty special."
With one conference game remaining, Huntingdon (8-1, 6-0 in the USA South) has a two-game lead in the conference standings. Maryville (7-2, 4-2 USA South) and North Carolina Wesleyan (4-5, 4-2 USA South) are currently tied for second.
This is Huntingdon's third season in the USA South Athletic Conference. Huntingdon finished as the USA South runner-up last season and tied for third in its first season in the conference. Before 2013, Huntingdon competed without a conference to call home for nine of its first 10 seasons.
"This means a lot," senior defensive back Anthony White said. "We've come so close the past two years, to finally be conference champions is a great feeling."
As conference champions, Huntingdon will receive a berth in the Division III playoffs. This will be the Hawks' second appearance in the playoffs and the first since 2009.
With eight wins this season, Huntingdon has matched its record for wins in a season set by the 2008 and 2009 squads. This win was Huntingdon's eighth against Maryville and the seventh straight against the Scots.
The Hawks were dominant from the start on Saturday. Huntingdon's defense gave up 474 yards for the game, but kept the Scots off the scoreboard until the fourth quarter. The defense ended two Maryville scoring threats with interceptions, made a fourth-down stop at the Huntingdon 26 and forced the Scots into two missed field-goal attempts.
"The difference in the game was our red zone defense," Turk said. "Maryville has some good weapons on offense and they were able to get some yards. But when they got in the red zone, our guys stepped up. We tell the guys all the time, as long as we have field behind us, we have a chance to stop them."
Maryville reached the Huntingdon 20-yard line on the opening possession of the game but missed a 41-yard attempt. In the second quarter, with the Scots at the Huntingdon 26, defensive lineman Octavis Harris and linebacker Trey Hayes led the charge on a fourth-and-two stop. Defensive back Brendon Brown ended Maryville's final threat of the first half with an interception at the Huntingdon 5.
In the second half, Maryville marched to the Huntingdon 13 but failed to connect on a 31-yard field-goal attempt. One possession later, Maryville reached the Hawks' 2-yard line. With 20 seconds left in the third quarter, defensive back Austin Washington picked off a pass in the end zone.
"That's how we've been all season," senior linebacker Jake Green said. "We may give up some yards, but when it comes down to crunch time, we've all been on the same page and we've gotten the job done."
While the defense was denying Maryville, the Huntingdon offense was finding the end zone. Quarterback Luke Bailey had a hand in all five of the Hawks' touchdowns, passing for four and running for one. Bailey finished with 256 passing yards on a 19-of-25 day.
Bailey opened the scoring with an 11-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and Chase Young made it 10-0 with a 35-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Young was 5-for-5 on extra points. Bailey hit Blake Malter for a 27-yard touchdown strike to close the first-half scoring.
Bailey and Nick Haas hooked up for a 6-yard touchdown play in the third quarter and the Hawks made it 31-0 early in the fourth quarter on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Bailey-to-Willie Coleman. Bailey and Haas capped Huntingdon's scoring with a 29-yard touchdown play midway through the fourth quarter.
Haas led the receivers with seven catches for 89 yards. Vic Jerald led the ground game with 84 yards on 17 carries.
Defensively, Anthony Wood and Hayes each recorded 11 tackles and White had 10 tackles and an interception. White leads the USA South with six interceptions this season. Green had nine tackles and a forced fumble.
Huntingdon will close out the regular season at home on Nov. 14 against Averett. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.