Last Thursday in Tatum, the West Rusk Raiders were 11 seconds away from being home for Thanksgiving.

Well, home for the rest of 2022, really.

That’s when Geremiah Smith hauled in a pass from teammate Andon Mata, a pass that Smith caught and took into the end zone at Eagle Stadium from 15 yards out, with 11 seconds left, that gave the Raiders the lead for good over Waskom and allowed West Rusk to beat the Wildcats, 41-37, in the second round of the UIL Class 3A playoffs.

When you’re that close to playoff finality, it makes you at least appreciate getting to play again.

Coach Nick Harrison and the West Rusk Raiders (10-2) will do just that – play again – this Friday in the UIL Class 3A Division II postseason, a third-round playoff game at 1 p.m. Friday at Pine Tree’s Pirate Stadium against former district rival Harmony (7-5), who pulled off an upset last week in the second round to get here, knocking off Hooks to earn the matchup against the Raiders.

West Rusk is the home team for the game. All ticket sales are online. Adults are $7, students (kindergarten through seniors) are $5. Here is the link to buy tickets: https://www.pinetreeathletics.com/tickets.html

The loser of West Rusk-Harmony is, indeed, out of the playoffs. The winner advances to round four, the regional final, to take on either Daingerfield (10-2) or Newton (11-1).

The Raiders have had some battles this season, and last week’s area round game against Tatum was no different.

From Thomas Bingham’s account of the game:

West Rusk kicked off to start the game, and made the most of a fumble on Waskom’s return. Tate Winings picked up the ball, and ran it all the way to the end zone for a quick Raider touchdown and 7-0 lead.

Waskom bounced back with a lengthy scoring driven that resulted in Caden Edwards’ 20-yard touchdown run. That made it a 7-7 score with 8:01 left in the first quarter.

West Rusk started an early second quarter drive at its own six-yard line. A few plays later, Mata’s first completion of the night landed in the hands of Geremiah Smith, and resulted in a 91-yard touchdown connection to give the Raiders a 14-7 edge at the 9:08 mark of the period.

Mata finished the night with a 14-of-25 passing performance for 264 yards and three touchdowns.

Waskom answered late in the first half when Tesean Hamilton carried the ball the final seven yards of a scoring drive to cut the gap to 14-13 with 52 seconds remaining until halftime, but the score remained the same when the Wildcats missed their extra point attempt.

It might’ve been a low-scoring game at halftime, but the teams changed the trend with a quick start to the third quarter.

West Rusk expanded its lead to 21-13 during Noah Murphy’s five-yard touchdown run at the 10:50 mark of the period.

Elijah Morris helped Waskom answer with a 46-yard touchdown run, but his team missed its first of three two-point conversion attempts in the period to still trail 21-19 at the 8:42 mark.

Mata found Smith again on a 45-yard touchdown connection, but West Rusk’s 27-19 lead remained because it also fell short of a two-point conversion attempt with 7:42 left in the quarter.

Ty Harper would then tack on a 33-yard touchdown run to give West Rusk a 34-19 advantage at the 5:21 mark of the frame.

Waskom stormed back with the next three scores to take a 37-34 lead in the fourth. Nate Espy produced a 13-yard touchdown run, and Edwards followed with a 34-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter before Hamilton added a seven-yard touchdown run with 8:42 left in the fourth and final frame.

But Mata connected with Smith on a 15-yard touchdown pass to wrap up his team’s game-winning drive with 11 seconds remaining in the game.

Harmony, meanwhile, was left for dead after an awful 0-5 start to the season.

But they have turned things around, to say the least.

In the playoff game against nine-win Hooks, Hooks took a 3-0 lead with 9:43 left in the opening quarter on a 28-yard field goal by Matthew Hayes after recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff, but Harmony answered with a 2-yard run by Boston Seahorn and extra point by Tucker Tittle a little more than a minute later to tie things at 7-7.

A 4-yard TD run by Keyshawn Walls with 4:57 left in the first gave Hooks a 10-7 lead, but Seahorn connected with Tyson Jenkins on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 3:46 left to move the Eagles back on top 14-10.

A 14-yard run by Walls early in the second quarter gave the Hornets the lead again, but Harmony came back with a 3-yard TD run by Riley Patterson. Octavious Johnson hauled in a 31-yard D pass from Trip Baysinger, and Hooks led 23-21 at halftime.

Seahorn scored on a pair of 3-yard runs in the second half — one in the third and one in the fourth quarter — adding 2-point passes to Will Young and Weston Seahorn for the final score.

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Sports editor

Mitch Lucas is the sports editor for the Kilgore News Herald, and has been since June 1, 2002.