By Tom Shanahan
RALEIGH – Athens Drive High converted two interception returns and one stripped fumble return into three touchdowns as the Jaguars upset Lee County 36-23 Friday night in a Tri-Nine 4A win at Pete Williams Field.
“It was a phenomenal effort by our defense,” first-year Athens Drive coach Chris Martin said, “We got that return for the first score in the first half and then we played great defense. Our offense drove the ball for a touchdown to start the second half and that set the tone.
“We’ve just needed to get some confidence. We had some close games or our record could have been better. We’ve got some great seniors. I’m really proud of these kids.”
Athens Drive, which nearly upset Tri-Nine Conference leader Middle Creek last week before falling 35-30, ended a three-game losing streak with the victory. The Jaguars improved to 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the Tri-Nine.
Lee County, which had won four in a row since losing to Middle Creek, dropped the Jackets to 7-3 and 5-2.
In a bizarre start to the night, Athens Drive was leading 9-0 after just 24 seconds elapsed without touching the ball. The Jaguars kicked off and Kyle Wolfe stripped the kick returner to score on a 23-yard fumble return for a 7-0 lead after 11 seconds.
“I saw the ball hanging there and just grabbed it,” Wolfe said. “I thought there might be a whistle, but I kept running to the end zone.”
On the ensuing kickoff, the bounding ball bounced off the hands of the return man out of bounds at the Lee County 1-yard line. On first down, Lee County ran a bubble screen out of the end zone. Athens Drive safety Caleb Glass and defensive lineman Cameron Keane combined for the tackle 2 yards deep into the end zone for a safety.
Athens Drive was suddenly leading 9-0 with 11:36 still to play in the first quarter and without taking a snap.
Lee County rallied to take 23-16 halftime lead, but Athens Drive opened the second half with a game-tying 14-play, 86-yard drive that consumed 6:15 as Dominique Lynch scored on a 2-yard run.
Lynch, who ran for 110 yards last week against Middle Creek, finished the game with 30 carries for 229 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-9, 208-pound junior also had a 46-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter.
The Jaguars’ two interceptions returns for touchdowns were 27-yarder by Wolfe for a 30-23 lead in the third quarter and a 54-yarder by Jamie Barnes in the fourth period for the final score of the night.