The last time Willis and Conroe met on the football field before Saturday evening was 1936.
Gas cost about a dime per gallon, and 700 dollars could purchase a new car.
Thought it had been awhile since they last lined up against one another, the Tigers and Wildkats reacquainted quickly.
Willis defeated Conroe 29-28 at Moorhead Stadium on Saturday to clinch the final playoff spot in District 13-6A, its first postseason appearance since 2016.
“I’m so proud for our kids, I’m proud for Willis and I’m proud for the fight these kids have had all the time,” Willis coach Michael Wall said. “We controlled our own destiny and we knew (Conroe) would play hard. They’re a well-coached team that plays hard and they’ve got a lot of seniors trying to leave a legacy. I’m extremely proud of the Wildkats tonight.”
The Wildkats (2-7, 2-3) scored with 40 seconds to play and trailed 28-27. What won the game was a reverse pass two-point conversion. Johnny McHenry tossed the ball to Jamarious Wells, who hit quarterback Steele Bardwell in the end zone for the game-winning play.
“We practice that play a lot,” Bardwell said. “I had trust in Jamarious, that he’d put it on me and he did. We got it done.”
Willis played one of the area’s toughest non-district schedules, taking on teams like two-time defending state champion North Shore and others who have been state-ranked like A&M Consolidated and rival Huntsville. The Wildkats began the season 0-7, then beat Grand Oaks and Conroe in the final two weeks to get into the postseason.
“It prepared us for moments like this,” Bardwell said of the schedule. “We played great competition and got used to playing good teams. We weren’t going to back down from anything. We handle adversity a lot better.”
Willis, Oak Ridge and Grand Oaks all finished 2-3 in district play. The Wildkats and War Eagles had better point differentials within the trio (both were tied at plus-6), so they got the district’s final two spots. Grand Oaks, at minus-12, missed out on a postseason appearance in its first year of playoff eligibility.
Conroe (3-6, 0-5) finished winless in 13-6A play. Four of the five losses came by one score, and two were decided by a single point.
“I said from the beginning the district is a tough district,” Conroe coach Cedric Hardeman said. “I knew we were a young team coming in and at times we showed it. We lost four district games by (a total of) nine points. It seems small, but it’s a big step for us. We need to make sure we take care of the little things and can win those games. That’s the next step for us as a program.”
The fourth quarter began with Willis ahead 21-16.
Conroe scored twice with fumble recoveries to get ahead by a touchdown. Maddox Rodel and Roman Hamilton ran back touchdowns of 14 and 68 yards, respectively. Both times, the Tigers failed on PATs. With 6:11 to play, Conroe led 28-21.
There were nine fumbles in the rainy game. Conroe had four and lost two. Willis had five and lost three.
“We turned the ball over, which we can’t do,” Hardeman said. “We were lucky that (Willis) put the ball on the ground and we had some defensive touchdowns to keep us in the game. Defense played lights out, came out and put two touchdowns on the board. Overall, we didn’t play our best. Hat’s off to Coach Wall. They came out and played a helluva game.”
Willis’ game-winning drive traveled 66 yards in just under five minutes. It included a fourth-down conversion draw from Bardwell that needed eight yards and got 10. The 11th play of the drive was a 20-yard touchdown pass from Bardwell to Tanner Hayes.
After a Conroe timeout, Willis converted the two-point play that won the game.
“I had to put it behind my back,” Bardwell said of his mindset entering the final drive. “Can’t worry and had to move on. We came out and answered, and it paid off at the end.”
Bardwell completed 18 of 28 passes for 243 yards and four touchdowns. Wells caught six passes for 41 yards. Hayes caught four for 58 yards and two scores. As a team, Willis rushed for 81 yards.
As rain came down consistently, neither team found the end zone until the second quarter. Conroe did, however, have a field goal blocked at the end of its opening drive.
The Wildkats found the end zone first about five minutes into the second quarter. Ja’Kobe McCoy caught a back-shoulder throw by Bardwell, then lost his defender on a 78-yard touchdown.
Two minutes later, after Jaxson James recovered a Conroe fumble, Willis scored with a hook and ladder. Bardwell threw a perfect pass to Derek Lagway, who flipped it to McHenry. The junior did the rest on the 38-yard touchdown.
With 54 seconds to play in the half, Conroe found the scoreboard. Clayton Garlock, who took over at quarterback for an injured Jalen Williams, ran in a 27-yard score.
“(Williams) got dinged up so we sent him to get looked at,” Hardeman said. “It’s sad because he’s a senior, but you’ve got to be cautious. Clayton comes and prepares. It’s not the first time he’s been in, so he made some plays.”
Garlock threw for 93 yards and a score and rushed for 48 yards a score. In the first half, Williams passed for 39 yards and rushed for 53. Conroe rushed for 213 yards, led by Jordan O’Neal’s 95 yards on six carries.
A 34-yard field goal by Josue Santos cut the Willis lead to four early in the third quarter.
Willis responded with a third down 17-yard touchdown pass from Bardwell to Hayes.
Late in the quarter, Conroe was stopped on fourth down in the red zone but immediately got it back with Lisadro Demagistris’ fumble recovery. Garlock threw a 6-yard score to Charles Kibble with 19 seconds left in the third quarter. A two-point pass failed and the Willis lead stood at 21-16, setting the stage for the final frame and the game-winning two-point conversion.
“We’re the underdogs and we’re not supposed to be here competing for a playoff spot,” Wall said. “I just felt like it was going to be there and we had a couple plays in mind. You always have plays like that for these types of games. We executed and I loved the finish.”