By Jim O'Hara
ROME -- There are no ifs, ands or buts – the Shorter Hawks are here to stay in the Gulf South Conference.
Thanks to a near-dominating second-half performance on both sides of the ball, the Hawks (6-5, 2-3 GSC) closed out their first season as an NCAA Division II team in the GSC when they handed the visiting Delta State Statesmen a 32-21 conference defeat Saturday at Barron Stadium to close out the season with their second straight Gulf South victory that ensured the Hawks with a winning 6-5 record.
"There's no way to describe it," Shorter head coach Phil Jones said after he was mobbed by his team at midfield following the game that gives the Hawks a 2-3 conference record. "Our guys just came together. They've been like a family."
"They've worked hard all year through the good times and the bad times," the coach went on to say. "I'm so thankful to the Lord to have the opportunity to coach them."
Against the Statesmen, another former Division II national championship program that the GSC boasts, the Hawks wound up reaping the fruits of their own opportunities, getting key performances from the entire squad.
Shorter finished the game with sound offensive numbers as the Hawks rolled up 440 total yards against the Statesmen, who finished the season suffering their fourth straight defeat and settle for 3-7 overall and 1-4 conference records.
Junior fullback Bradley Moon and junior slotback Roderick Jones anchored Shorter's running attack that ate up 323 yards. Moon led the Hawks with 14 carries for 80 yards that gave him 1,021 for the season and makes him just the second player in Shorter history to break the 1,000-yard barrier in a single season, while Jones gained 76 yards on just five carries, one a 32-yard touchdown jaunt that opened the game.
Sophomore quarterback Eric Dodson, who already has set the Hawks' record for most passing yards in a season, also found success through the air as he threw for 117 yards and a touchdown that covered 87 yards when he found wide receiver Kareem Hawkins wide open deep behind the Statesmen secondary to cap off the scoring in the fourth period and put the proverbial icing on the cake. The completion marked a new school record for the combination, with the longest pass play in Hawks history – the prior record was 85 yards set in 2009.
Defensively, the Hawks surrendered just one touchdown in the second half after Shorter held a 17-14 halftime lead and finished the game giving up 329 yards to Delta State.
Senior All-American linebacker Demery Hawkins, one of 17 seniors to end their career with the Hawks, led Shorter with eight tackles, a sack and three tackles for losses, while freshman defensive end Laynce Sanders had seven hits.
"Nathan and his staff did a great job adjusting," Jones pointed out about how Shorter defensive coordinator Nathan Burton helped dial in the Hawks over the final 30 minutes of play. "This one was all about the team. Everybody played well."
The Hawks served notice that they were more than ready to square off against the Statesmen, taking the opening kickoff down the field to assume the early lead by putting together a five-play, 71-yard march that culminated when Jones broke into the open off the right end and sprinted 32 yards into the end zone to score just over two minutes into the game. Troy Postell, who connected for a pair of field goals in the win, added the first of three extra points.
On their second possession, however, the Statesmen started to click and tied the score when Spencer Van Brunt hooked up with Lavon Downs for a 17-yard scoring strike and D.J. Jarrin added the point after.
The two teams continued to trade touchdowns in the second quarter, with Shorter making the most of a short-field situation when Dodson scored from a yard out after a 38-yard series at the start of the period, but Delta State responded with just over three minutes remaining in the half via a 3-yard touchdown run by Richard Freelon.
But Shorter closed out the final minutes before intermission putting themselves in position to regain the lead at halftime, moving the ball 60 yards to the Statesmen five where Postell split the uprights from 22 yards out to put the Hawks on top, 17-14.
The Hawks opened the second half with a mirror image of how they ended the opening two periods when Postell connected with a 26-yard field goal that gave Shorter a 20-14 advantage, but again Delta State answered with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter when Brant Botill scampered into the end zone from 23 yards out to give Delta State a 21-20 advantage.
That lead wound up being the Statesmen's last of the afternoon.
The Hawks regained the lead for good, 26-21, on the second play of the final stanza when junior slotback Kirk Wilson sprinted to the corner on an option pitch from Dodson and raced up the sideline for a 23-yard scoring run.
Then, with just under nine minutes to play, Shorter put a dagger in Delta State's heart with what proved to be the longest touchdown pass of the season.
Faced with a third and 22 situations at their own 13, the Hawks opted to go to the air with Dodson getting perfect protection in order to hit senior wide receiver Kareem Hawkins, who found himself alone behind the Statesmen secondary, with a deep pass along the left sideline that resulted in an 87-yard scoring strike.
Delta State never threatened after that, managing to move the ball into Shorter's side of the field just one time without any damage being done.
For Jones, the win underlines the cornerstone of what the Hawks' program is built upon and provides even more motivation as Shorter quieted those naysayers who believed that the team's arrival in the NCAA and the Gulf South would take much longer.
"It's a matter of continuing to be the best we can and our foundation allows us to do that," said Jones, "and that foundation starts with relationships with each other and with the Lord."
"This team showed with it's all about. I love every one of them."