MAGNOLIA — Lightning struck twice, and China Spring is putting the rest of the state on notice.
The Cougars’ special teams unit had a banner night, helping China Spring roll to a 35-22 victory over second-ranked West Orange-Stark in a Class 4A Division II area football playoff game Friday at Bulldog Stadium.
It’s the second straight week the Cougars (9-2) handily upset a top-five opponent after routing No. 4 Jasper 45-19 in the bi-district round. China Spring’s 35 points are just seven less than the Mustangs (8-1) had given up all season.
“We’ve got some confidence right now, and that’s great,” China Spring head coach Brian Bell said. “I’m just excited about where we’re going, and hopefully we can do it again next week.”
China Spring sprints into the regional round to face No. 9 Sealy, which beat Center 38-7, at a time and place to be determined.
China Spring grabbed the momentum on a trio of key special teams plays to build a 35-14 halftime lead.
With no score midway through the first quarter, junior linebacker Dawson Exline blocked and recovered a West Orange-Stark punt all in one motion and ran it in for a 15-yard touchdown to give the Cougars a 7-0 lead with 4:24 left in the first quarter. After China Spring forced another three-and-out, junior Domonic Guerrero recovered a muffed punt at the Mustangs’ 8-yard line. Three plays later, junior quarterback Major Bowden ran around the left end and dove for the pylon to make it 14-0.
“That was a big game-changer,” Exline said of his blocked punt. “It kind of shocked me a little bit. I got it off his foot and it just came right into my chest.
“Whenever your special teams is playing well like that, getting turnover after turnover, it determines the outcome of the game. Domonic [Guerrero] helping us with all those turnovers really gave us that momentum.”
Later in the half, Guerrero recovered a pooched kickoff to give the ball back to the Cougars at the West Orange-Stark 37. After a pair of holding penalties, Bowden hit senior receiver Coltin Locking deep down the middle for a 52-yard touchdown, extending the lead to 35-7 with 2:45 left in the first half.
Senior running back Emmanuel Abdallah rushed for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 16 carries in the first half, including a 71-yarder right before the pooch kick. Abdallah finished with 177 yards on 30 carries and Bowden added 23 carries for 75 yards and completed 8 of 10 passes for 93 yards.
China Spring forced punts on West Orange-Stark’s first five possessions and allowed only one first down over the first 19 minutes of the game. The Mustangs injected some life into their offense late in the first half, though, as quarterback Jerren Terrell took a reverse hand off out of the wildcat and found senior Jerrold Brown down the middle for a 68-yard touchdown pass to make it 21-7.
Terrell also ripped off a 33-yard scramble on the Mustangs’ last drive of the first half, setting up junior Jayson Zeigler’s 4-yard touchdown run with 26 seconds left in the second quarter.
West Orange-Stark got a stop and a score to start the third quarter with Terrell connecting with Brown for their second touchdown to cut China Spring’s lead to 35-22 with 6:54 left in the period.
The Cougars didn’t budge from there as they forced three-and-outs on the last three West Orange-Stark drives and held the ball for large chunks of time despite not scoring. The China Spring defense didn’t allow Terrell room to operate, getting sacks from Exline and Locking on the final two possessions.
“It feels great, especially coming into this game overlooked by lots of people,” Exline said. “With the way we’re playing right now, there’s no limit for us, to be honest. If everyone does their job to their full potential, plays ruthless football, we have a chance against anyone.”