COLUMBIA — Battle High School's Marshall Willingham set his jaw and strode toward the 30-yard line. He was already looking ahead.
Jackson High School had just pummeled Battle 48-19, and junior Willingham had a message for his team.
"We've got to fix these mistakes," he said. "These are the kind of teams we'll be playing all year next year!"
"We've got a lot of growing to do, physically and mentally," Willingham said, as coach Justin Conyers joined the huddle — he'd been detained by two reporters.
Conyers told the downtrodden Spartans that he took responsibility for the loss and promised his team they'd fix the mistakes — mistakes that led at one point to a 35-point swing in Jackson's favor.
The story of this game was told in the final three minutes of the second quarter, when everything unraveled for Battle. And, as both Willingham and Conyers said, youth was a major factor that contributed to the loss.
The 35-point swing began with an interception with 3:03 left in the first half.
Up until this point, the Spartans had dominated the Indians. They moved the ball well on offense and they played solid defense. Up until this point, they led 13-0.
Cue the interception, which happened on Battle's own 25-yard line, giving Jackson a short field. A minute later, Jackson was in the end zone. The crowd quieted down and a cool wind kicked up as Jackson prepared to kick off to Battle with 2:06 remaining in the second quarter.
Battle's Trey Smith got the crowd back on their feet, returning the kickoff all the way down to the Jackson 21-yard line. But that's as close as they'd get to the end zone — the Spartans turned the ball over on downs with just over a minute left in the half.
And that's when the Indians engineered a six-play, 55-second scoring drive, going into the locker room with a 14-13 lead.
The bottom fell out in the second half for the Spartans. The Indians scored 21 points in the third quarter before Willingham finally broke the Spartans' scoring drought with a 72-yard touchdown run. It was the last time the Spartans would get on the board.
The Indians added two more scores in the final quarter, and the beleaguered Spartans got in line to shake their opponents' hands. They took a knee in the closing huddle, looking as if they were in a daze, listening to Willingham and Conyers speak.
"This feeling sucks," Conyers said. "I hate this feeling."
He told his players he was proud of them for not giving up.
And then he echoed Willingham's words, reminding them that they were a young team with a lot of growing up to do.
The game, the loss, the 35-point swing was a wake-up call. It was a reminder of the ups and downs of a young team's season. And, depending on how they respond, it may provide a glimpse into next year's team and just how much growing up the Spartans will need to do.
Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.