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September 9, 2011
Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
SMYRNA, Tenn. - When the ball came down into the hands of D'Arthur Cowan in the corner of the end zone - the completion of a perfect 25-yard pass from Todd Mays in the final second Friday night - it marked the end of a fantastic football game.
Olive Branch (Miss.) High's 26-24 victory over Smyrna (Tenn.) High was more than that, however. It was the latest example of the depth that permeates the high school game now.
Olive Branch, at No. 89, was ranked in the RivalsHigh Top 100; Smyrna was not. But that didn't matter on this field.
Or on high school fields across the country on this Friday night or the last two.
The RivalsHigh 100 always has been based on not if you win, but how you win. This year that's slowly changing as it becomes more and more obvious that there's little difference between No. 50 and No. 250 - just coming away with a win means more than ever.
"We were a bit out of sync tonight and playing against a good team, we never really got into a rhythm," Scott Samsel, head coach of Olive Branch, said. "We had some stuff going on in our area and we were on an open week last week, under the circumstances I think we did OK."
Doing OK may have been the perfect description. Olive Branch did not look like a team that was to be considered among the nation's elite.
"It is a good win though," Samsel said. "It could have gone the other way."
Olive Branch was one of a handful of schools to survive Friday night. Others in the Top 100 - three defending state champs, in fact - weren't so lucky.
No. 38 Tallahassee (Fla.) Lincoln fell to unranked Valdosta (Ga.) High, 10-7;
No. 42 Denver (Colo.) Mullen dropped its game against Aurora (Colo.) Grandview, 12-7;
No. 46 Pearland (Texas) High fell to Houston (Texas) Spring Branch Memorial, 17-14.
Upsets? Well, by the national rankings they are.
But don't tell that to the teams on the field.
Just ask Smyrna. It went into the game feeling it could win. And nearly did.
"That one got taken from us," Brandon Hathaway, a senior two-way player for Smyrna, said. "I saw the ball go up, I saw (Cowan) catch it, and I saw him land out of bounds.
"But the refs called it a touchdown so I guess I was wrong."
The Cowan catch gave the lead back to Olive Branch with just 0.8 seconds left on the clock.
The play marked the fifth lead change in the game.
"He's our playmaker," Samsel said of Cowan. "We had to get it done and he came through for us."
Cowan, an Arkansas commit, was a major factor in the win and showcased his ability in all phases of the game.
He would have opened the scoring in the first quarter but an 87-yard punt return was called back on an illegal block in the back 20 yards behind the play.
Cowan did get to celebrate a touchdown in the third quarter with a 17-yard reception from Mays and then the game-winner as time expired.
"It feels great," he said. "We work on the two-minute drill and the 30-second drill every day in practice. We feel comfortable in it."
It is the second game this season that Olive Branch has needed a miracle finish. It also scored late in its season opening, 28-24, win over Madison (Miss.) Central.
The Cardiac Conquistadors? Perhaps.
"We never give up," Mays said. "We know that we always have a chance if there is time on the clock and tonight we needed every second."
Fans of Smyrna could argue that they needed every second and then some.
On the second down play of the final drive, Mays rolled to the left and ran into pressure. He reversed field and came to his right and appeared to fumble the ball forward while he was in the grasp of the defender.
The line judge signaled for a stoppage on the clock - which it did for a solid three seconds before the referee re-wound the clock - allowing for the final score to occur.
"I don't know what was happening then," Hathaway said. "It just feels like it was taken from us. We played good enough to win and we didn't. I don't like feeling like this.
"Our season is not over. We will be back."
Smyrna is now 1-3 with a similarly tough loss to Franklin (Tenn.) Battle Ground Academy as well as a defeat to perennial power Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Riverdale to go with the Olive Branch setback.
Being a team on the cusp of the Top 10 in a non-power state may not lend to the credibility of the win for Olive Branch, but with more games coming down to the wire, the perception of ranked teams in any state may need to be adjusted.
Olive Branch is a solid program from a solid football state. (Mississippi, remember, is the home of the defending national champion: Batesville (Miss.) South Panola.)
Whether it remains in the Top 100 will be determined on Monday.
This much is clear: Simply being ranked doesn't lead to easy victories over unranked opponents.