(Trevor Tegley / CCN Contributing Photographer)
The Tigers, 3-5 overall and 3-1 in the division, have now won three straight conference games. The victory, coupled with a Yellville-Summit 41-20 win over Melbourne, assured Green Forest of reaching the playoffs after a two-year hiatus.
"We knew we were better than what we showed at the beginning of the season," Green Forest coach Jay Martin said. "We got some things fixed and these kids are playing their butts off. They are playing with confidence and believe they can win."
The Tigers had trouble getting going against the homesteading Tigers (4-4, 3-2), dropping three passes in the third quarter, two by senior Gustin Byars that would have gained first-down yardage, and one by junior Clayton Watson. Watson's drop would have gone for a touchdown as the West Fork defender fell down as the ball ricocheted out of Watson's arms.
"Our hands were a little cold I guess, I'm not sure," Watson said of the early-game miscues.
But Watson and Byars finally got connected to junior quarterback Treyton Anderson, who finished with 103 passing yards on 7-of-15 attempts. Byars hauled in a 6-yard pass to start the ball rolling and Watson hauled in four for 82 yards and two scores in the second quarter. That was more than enough for Green Forest as it pitched a shutout for the first time since 2010.
"We always knew we could," Watson said. "We just had to stay focused on the things we were dong right. We knew we were doing things right."
On a night the offense was sputtering, the defense did everything right, including a four-down stop of the Tigers after an interception set West Fork up first-and-goal from the Green Forest 4-yard line.
"That was a huge stop," Martin said. "This defense played unbelievable all night. They just kept making stops."
West Fork took the opening drive of the game and drove easily downfield until Green Forest forced a turnover on downs inside the red zone. The rest of the first quarter turned into a field-position battle with the visiting Tigers gaining ground after each possession, eventually leading to Anderson and Watson hooking up for an 18-yard touchdown to break the scoreless affair. Watson caught the ball in traffic at the 2-yard line and maintained his balance to the end zone.
Watson then intercepted a pass with a minute left in the half and returned it to the West Fork 20. A couple of plays and some penalty yards later, Anderson found Watson again from 28-yards out as the Tigers took a 14-0 lead into the half.
"We always think we are better (than the opponent) before the game starts," Watson said. "But I think it clicked with everybody when we went down and scored that first touchdown."
After racking up nearly 300 total yards in last week's stunning win over Greenland, Watson continued his dominance with two more touchdowns against West Fork. He has now scored five times in the last two weeks.
"I am just trying to set the tone and help our team," Watson said. "I know it's probably not my place to say that but I feel like I can take that responsibility and help lead this team."
Eric Perez added a 30-yard field goal in the third quarter to pad the lead and the Green Forest defense continued to turn West Fork away, including the goal-line stand in the waning moments. What started as wanting to win turned into a different scene as the clock was winding down. According to Martin, the team was enticed by the promise of donuts Monday morning if the posted a "donut" on the scoreboard. During the final moments of the game, the sidelines were talking about glazed goodness in addition to the playoff berth.
"We have worked hard," Watson said. "We deserve every bit of it. Nobody thought we could do and we did it. It feels great."
Junior Kevin Jimenez led the ground game with 55 yards on 14 carries while Anderson picked up 46 yards on 11 caries. Cody Delozier added nine carries for 18 yards and Dalton Ewing carried the ball twice for two yards.
HEctor Lopez led the hard-hitting defense with 11 solo tackles and a pair of assists, Ewing added seven solos and four assists, Byars had five solos and two assists and Perez added three solos, including a bone-jarring hit on a pass attempt where he separated ball from receiver in the fourth quarter.
Devin Johnson added three solos and two assists, Mackenzie Arciga had two solos, Delozier had two solos and three assists, Watson added two solos and an assist, Quinton Humbard chipped in a solo and Hunter Ault contributed a solo and two assists.
The Tigers host Elkins (2-6, 2-3) for senior night this Friday at Tiger Stadium. Elkins dropped a 13-3 decision to Greenland last week.
"We are so proud of this senior bunch," Martin said. "They are the reason we are where we are right now. They never gave up. They kept working hard and kept being leaders. We want this game to be special for them. We want people to come out and watch this game. These guys deserve that."